Qatar-led team finds its first alien world

Artist's impression of Qatar-1b

Artist's impression of the newly discovered alien world Qatar-1b. The planet is a gas giant 20 percent larger than Jupiter in diameter and 10 percent more massive. It circles its star once every 1.4 days, meaning that its "year" is just 34 Earth hours long.

  • Planet found orbiting star 550 light-years from Earth
  • Discovered by team led by Qatari scientist
  • International effort involving Qatar, USA and UK

A QATARI ASTRONOMER has teamed with scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics (CfA) in the USA and other institutions to discover a new alien world.

This “hot Jupiter” adds to the growing list of “exoplanets” orbiting distant stars. Its discovery demonstrates the power of science to transcend political boundaries and increase ties between nations.

The planet, now called Qatar-1b, orbits an orange Type K star 550 light-years away.

Qatar-1b is a gas giant 20 percent larger than Jupiter in diameter and 10 percent more massive. It belongs to the “hot Jupiter” family because it orbits just 3.5 million kilometres from its star—only six times the radius of the star—which means it is very hot.

The planet roasts at a temperature of around 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Qatar-1b circles its star once every 1.4 days, meaning that its “year” is just 34 Earth hours long. It’s expected to be tidally locked with the star, so that one side of the planet always faces the star.

As a result, the planet spins on its axis once every 34 hours—three times slower than Jupiter, which rotates once in 10 hours.

International teamwork

“The discovery of Qatar-1b is a great achievement—one that further demonstrates Qatar’s commitment to becoming a leader in innovative science and research,” said Dr Khalid Al Subai, leader of the Qatar exoplanet survey and a research director of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

The Qatar exoplanet survey hunts for stars that “wink,” dimming slightly every time an orbiting planet creates a “mini-eclipse” by crossing in front of the star as seen from Earth.

Transit searches like this must sift through thousands of stars to find the small fraction with detectable planets. The complex observations and analysis create perfect opportunities for teamwork.

To find the new world, Qatar’s wide-angle cameras (located in New Mexico) took images of the sky every clear night beginning in early 2010. The photographs then were transmitted to the UK for analysis by collaborating astronomers at St. Andrews and Leicester Universities and Qatar. That analysis narrowed the field to a few hundred candidate stars.

The Harvard-Smithsonian team, with Dr Al Subai, followed up on the most promising candidates, making spectroscopic observations with the 1.5-metre-diameter telescope at the Smithsonian’s Whipple Observatory in Arizona. They also measured the stars’ dimming more accurately with Whipple’s 1.2-metre telescope.

Adapted from information issued by Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics / David A. Aguilar (CfA).

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