Among his recent projects, Malcolm Curtis edited and wrote articles for a University of Geneva website dedicated to one of its top professors, globally-renowned astrophysicist Michel Mayor. Check out the website at MichelMayor.ch. Here is an excerpt from one of the articles:
Mayor’s Exoplanet Discovery Transforms Astronomy
September 27, 2011
By Malcolm Curtis
The announcement struck the world of astronomy like a thunderbolt. On October 6, 1995, Geneva-based astrophysicist Michel Mayor told a conference of scientists in Florence, Italy about a discovery that was to revolutionize the study of celestial objects.
For the first time, Professor Mayor and Didier Queloz, a PhD student at the University of Geneva, had identified a planet orbiting around a sun-like star outside the Solar System. The extrasolar planet, officially named 51 Pegasi b, is 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. The find triggered an extraordinary new era in exoplanetary research.
The pair of scientists discovered the “exoplanet” through the use of the ELODIE spectrograph, a sophisticated instrument Mayor helped develop. It was attached to the 1.9-meter telescope at the Observatoire de Haute-Provence in southern France in 1994 and rapidly proved its worth. The device is designed to quantify with precision the velocity of a star whose position changes as the result of the gravitational pull of one or more orbiting planets.
This “radial velocity method” of identifying exoplanets, mastered by Mayor, measures the tiny wobbles caused by a planet’s gravitational interaction with a star. Planets are thus detected indirectly through a high-tech system involving fiber-optic cables feeding light from a telescope. Mayor and Queloz spent night after night studying 140 stars similar to our sun before finding 51 Pegasi b. And even then, Mayor admits that he initially had doubts about the initial information gathered from ELODIE about the exoplanet in late 1994. And other scientists adamantly dismissed such instruments as being inadequate for hunting exoplanets.
“It was a new instrument so I was not completely sure,” the Swiss scientist recalled in an interview at his office at the Geneva Observatory. “At first we had very few measurements.” It was only after Mayor received more data that he felt confident enough to believe in the discovery . . .
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