Science

Alien Planet Discovered ... Thanks To Albert Einstein?

By Matthew Klickstein , May 14, 2013 09:42 AM EDT
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We've already told you that of the 800 planets that exist outside of our solar system, three of them -- known as "Super Earths" -- are likely habitable or "alien" planets. We also told you that Albert Einstein's hyper-confusing and yet oh-so-simple Theory of Relativity has passed some rather rigorous tests in the practical world as of late.

Now it seems both of these stories have been brought together in a randy display of the brand of nuclear fusion that Einstein himself wouldn't have been able to figure out: A new alien planet has been discovered, thanks to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity.

That's right: Nearly six decades after his death, Einstein is still working it. This marks the first time in scientific history that an alien planet was discovered by use of the practical applications of the Special Theory of Relativity.

Not surprisingly nicknamed "Einstein's planet" by the astronomers who found it, the new alien planet's actual name is Kepler-76b and is said to be twice as heavy as Jupiter, according to Space.com. Kepler-76b, or Einstein's planet, is also 25 percent larger than Jupiter, which happens to be the largest planet in our own solar system.

Because of its dwarfing Jupiter, Kepler-76b is classified as a "hot Jupiter," which is in fact a class all of its own. It resides in the constellation Cygnus, some 2,000 light years away, in which Kepler-76b orbits its star.

"Subtle effects" of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity were employed in the discovering of Kepler-76b, including what is known as "beaming," which "occurs when light from the parent star brightens as its planet tugs it a nudge closer to Earth, and dims as the planet pulls it away. Relativistic effects cause light particles, called photons, to pile up and become focused in the direction of the star's motion," according to Space.com.

Other aspects of Einstein's Special Theory that were utilized in the discovery of the alien planet include the likes of determinations made from the realization that "gravitational tides from the orbiting planet caused its star to stretch slightly into a football shape, causing it to appear brighter when its wider side faces us, revealing more surface area. Finally, the planet itself reflects a small amount of starlight, which also contributed to its discovery."

NASA's Kepler spacecraft is designed to search for alien planets such as Kepler-76b via the "transit method" of seeking out stars that dim periodically when planets pass in front of them. It was the detailed information from the spacecraft that led the astronomers to discover Einstein's planet.

"This was only possible because of the exquisite data NASA is collecting with the Kepler spacecraft," Study Leader Simchon Faigler of Tel Aviv University said, according to Space.com.  

Another technique for planet-finding is the "wobble method" in which "slight signs of movement in stars' radial velocities caused by tugging planets" are sought out. The researchers said the new Einstein method for seeking out planets is really only applicable to larger planets, and that it is not nearly as helpful in seeking out Earth-sized planets.

"Each planet-hunting technique has its strengths and weaknesses. And each novel technique we add to the arsenal allows us to probe planets in new regimes," Avi Loeb of the Center for Astrophysics, said.

The alien planet's discovery will be detailed in a forthcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.  

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