Spitzer is trying to solve the puzzle of how planets are distributed throughout our Milky Way galaxy.
“We don’t know if planets are more common in our galaxy’s central bulge or the disk of the galaxy, which is why these observations are so important,” said Jennifer Yee of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a NASA Sagan fellow.
Yee is the lead author of one of three new studies that appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal describing a collaboration between astronomers using Spitzer and the Polish Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, or OGLE.
OGLE’s Warsaw Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile scans the skies for planets using a method called microlensing. A microlensing event occurs when one star happens to pass in front of another, and its gravity acts as a lens to magnify and brighten the more distant star’s light.
If that foreground star happens to have a planet in orbit around it, the planet might cause a blip in the magnification.
“We’ve mainly explored our own solar neighborhood so far,” said Sebastiano Calchi Novati, a Visiting Sagan Fellow at NASA’s Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. “Now we can use these single lenses to do statistics on planets as a whole and learn about their distribution in the galaxy.”
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Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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