MessageToEagle.com - For the first time, astronomers have spotted planets orbiting sun-like stars
in a M44, a prominent open cluster of stars.
It's a collection of approximately 1,000 stars that appear to be swarming around a common center.
M44, which is naked-eye object, was nicknamed the Beehive Cluster but it's also called the Praesepe (Latin for "manger").
The object was already recognised in prehistoric times, by many ancient cultures, such as the Chinese, who called it
Tseih She Ke (Exhalation of Piled-up Corpses) or the Greeks, who used it, along with its attendants as a weather forecaster
- a sign of rain.
Click on image to enlarge
Comet NEAT and the Beehive Cluster
To the unaided eye, they appeared as similar fuzzy patches. But when a bright comet passed in front of a bright star
cluster last month, binoculars and cameras were able to show off their marked differences in dramatic fashion.
Pictured above, the bright comet, C/2001 Q4 (NEAT) shows many details of its coma and tail, while far in the distance
the Beehive open cluster, M44, shows many of its stars. Comet Q4 has now faded to the edge of unaided visibility and
can best be found with a sky map and binoculars from the Northern Hemisphere well into June.
Star cluster M44 will remain an impressive star cluster toward the constellation of Cancer indefinitely. Credit & Copyright:
Jimmy Westlake (Colorado Mountain College)
The Beehive Cluster was also observed and recorded by some eminent astronomers like Ptolemy (85-165 AD),
Hipparchus of Nicaea (190-120 BC) and Aratus of Soli (ca. 315 BC/310 BC – 240 BC) who described the cluster
in his work Phainomeina.
The planets found in the Beehive Cluster are not habitable, but the discovery constitutes the best evidence
yet that planets can sprout up in dense stellar environments.
The starry-skied planets are two so-called hot Jupiters, which are massive, gaseous orbs that are boiling hot because
they orbit tightly around their parent stars. Each hot Jupiter circles a different sun-like star in M44, a prominent
open cluster of stars.
The Beehive is grouping of stars born at about the same time and out of the same giant cloud
of material. The stars therefore share a similar chemical composition. Unlike the majority of stars, which spread
out shortly after birth, these young stars remain loosely bound together by mutual gravitational attraction.
Astronomers have discovered two gas giant planets orbiting stars in the Beehive cluster, a collection of
about 1,000 tightly packed stars. The planets are the first ever found around sun-like stars in a cluster of stars.
Such planets, even though they are not habitable, would have skies filled with many bright stars as illustrated in this
artist's concept. A gas giant planet is shown to the right of its sun-like star, and all around, the stars of the
Beehive cluster shine brightly in the dark. Credits: NASA
Once, M44 was thought to be a nebula until Galileo used an early telescope to resolve the cluster's bright blue stars.
These stars are visible in the above image. M44, which is thought to have formed about 400 million years ago, is
larger and older than most other open clusters.
The Beehive Cluster lies about 580 light-years away, and spans about 10 light-years across. When viewed with a
powerful telescope, hundreds of stars become visible.
"We are detecting more and more planets that can thrive in diverse and extreme environments like these nearby clusters,"
said Mario R. Perez, the NASA astrophysics program scientist in the Origins of Solar Systems Program.
"Our galaxy contains more than 1,000 of these open clusters, which potentially can present the physical conditions
for harboring many more of these giant planets."
The two new Beehive planets are called Pr0201b and Pr0211b. The star's name followed by a "b" is the standard
naming convention for planets.
"These are the first 'b's' in the Beehive," said Sam Quinn, a graduate student in astronomy at Georgia State University
in Atlanta and the lead author of the paper describing the results, which was published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Quinn and his team, in collaboration with David Latham at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, discovered the
planets by using the 1.5-meter Tillinghast telescope at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Fred Lawrence Whipple
Observatory near Amado, Arizona to measure the slight gravitational wobble the orbiting planets induce upon their host stars.
The Beehive Cluster - Credits: http://www.utahskies.org
Previous searches of clusters had turned up two planets around massive stars but none had been found around stars
like our sun until now.
"This has been a big puzzle for planet hunters," Quinn said. "We know that most stars form in clustered environments
like the Orion nebula, so unless this dense environment inhibits planet formation, at least some sun-like stars in open
clusters should have planets. Now, we finally know they are indeed there."
The results also are of interest to theorists who are trying to understand how hot Jupiters wind up so close to their
stars. Most theories contend these blistering worlds start out much cooler and farther from their stars before
"The relatively young age of the Beehive cluster makes these planets among the youngest known," said Russel White,
the principal investigator on the NASA Origins of Solar Systems grant that funded this study.
"And that's important because it sets a constraint on how quickly giant planets migrate inward -- and knowing how
quickly they migrate is the first step to figuring out how they migrate."
The research team suspects planets were turned up in the Beehive cluster because it is rich in metals.
Stars in the Beehive have more heavy elements such as iron than the sun has.
"Searches for planets around nearby stars suggest that these metals act like a 'planet fertilizer,'
leading to an abundant crop of gas giant planets. Our results suggest this may be true in clusters as well,"
Russel White said.
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