10. October 2019
Swiss exoplanet discoverers Mayor and Queloz awarded Nobel Prize for Physics

The search for extrasolar planets continues

Exoplanet discovered by the Nobel Laureates Mayor and Queloz
Exoplanet discovered by the Nobel Laureates Mayor and Queloz
Image 1/4, Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/N. Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Exoplanet discovered by the Nobel Laureates Mayor and Queloz

This artist's impression shows the extrasolar planet 51 Pegasi b, which was discovered in 1995 by Swiss astronomers Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor and is located approximately 50 light years away. The two Geneva scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2019 for this discovery. The name Dimidium was given to the first extrasolar planet discovered orbiting a Sun-like star in a naming competition organised by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The word means 'half' and is intended to indicate that the planet has about half the mass of the planet Jupiter. Dimidium orbits its star Helvetios (51 Pegasi) in the constellation Pegasus, the 'flying horse' in the northern starry sky – in only 4.2 days and on a very tight orbit of only eight million kilometres. This heats up its gas shell to almost 1000 degrees Celsius, which is why the exoplanet is also classified as a 'hot Jupiter'.

CoRoT-7b – the first rock planet
CoRoT-7b – the first rock planet
Image 2/4, Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

CoRoT-7b – the first rock planet

The first exoplanet – 51 Pegasi b or Dimidium – was discovered in 1995 using a telescope at the observatory Haute-Provence. The search for exoplanets from space began with the French space telescope CoRoT. In 2009, CoRoT discovered an exoplanet whose radius and mass could be precisely determined. CoRoT-7b is thus the first rocky exoplanet discovered (in this artistic representation in the foreground). In addition to the two designated Nobel Prize winners, scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) were also involved in this important discovery.

The CHEOPS space telescope – launch in December 2019
The CHEOPS space telescope – launch in December 2019
Image 3/4, Credit: ESA/ATG Medialab

The CHEOPS space telescope – launch in December 2019

The CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOplanet Satellite) mission of the European Space Agency (ESA) is scheduled for launch on 17 December 2019. It will use high-precision photometry to search for other planets and determine the radius of the exoplanets with great accuracy.

ESA's PLATO mission will start searching for Earth-like exoplanets in 2026
ESA's PLATO mission will start searching for Earth-like exoplanets in 2026
Image 4/4, Credit: OHB Systems AG

ESA's PLATO mission will start searching for Earth-like exoplanets in 2026

The major ESA mission PLATO (Planetary Transits and Oscillations of Stars) will open a new chapter in the search for extrasolar planets when it is launched in 2026. The scientific payload of the space telescope is the responsibility of an international consortium led by Rauer of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. PLATO consists of 26 individual telescopes and cameras and will be the first instrument capable of finding planets the size of Earth in the 'habitable', life-friendly zone of Sun-like stars.

  • Their discovery of the exoplanet 51 Pegasi b in 1995 spawned a revolution in astronomy.
  • The Search for exoplanets is becoming increasingly important at DLR.
  • The two ESA missions CHEOPS (2019) and PLATO (2026) will focus on Earth-like planets.
  • Focus: astronomy, exploration, search for exoplanets, astrobiology

The discovery of the first exoplanet almost 25 years ago changed our perception of the origin and evolution of the Universe and challenged the uniqueness of our own Solar System. Today, scientists from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) and other organisations are using new techniques and instruments on ESA missions such as CHEOPS and PLATO to set their sights even higher – the hunt for a second Earth.

This year's Nobel Prize in Physics 2019 will be awarded with one half to James Peebles for his work on structure formation in the early Universe, and the other half to the two Geneva-based astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, for their discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star. Their 1995 publication, 'A Jupiter-mass companion to a solar-type star' (Nature, volume 378), confirmed the discovery of a planet orbiting a Sun-like star. Their findings sparked a new and rapidly-expanding area of astronomy – the search for extrasolar planets, or exoplanets. DLR has been active in this field since the beginning, specifically using space telescopes. DLR researchers extend sincere congratulations to their colleagues Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz. They will receive the famous Nobel diploma – each a unique work of art – from the King of Sweden Carl XVI Gustaf in Stockholm on 10 December 2019, the anniversary of the death of Nobel Prize founder Alfred Nobel.

The discovery by the two Swiss astronomers was based on measurements using the ELODIE spectrograph at the Haute-Provence Observatory, located approximately 90 kilometres east of Avignon, France. Since then, the number of discovered exoplanets has risen rapidly, leading to increasing calls from the scientific community for a systematic search for exoplanets using space telescopes, whose observations are not impaired by the Earth's atmosphere.  The first space mission dedicated to exoplanetary research, CoRoT, was given green in the year 2000. At that time, only some 50 exoplanets had been confirmed. CoRoT was a French satellite mission with contributions from ESA and DLR. The mission led to the discovery of the first rocky exoplanet, CoRoT-7b. Prior to this, scientists had only identified 'hot Jupiters' – planets with diameters exceeding 100,000 kilometres. These planets are similar to the gas giant Jupiter – the largest planet in the Solar System – but have very short orbital periods that expose them to extremely high temperatures. DLR scientists were named alongside Mayor and Queloz in the list of authors credited with the discovery of CoRoT-7b.

The discovery of 51 Pegasi b revolutionised the field of astronomy

The detection of a planet orbiting a star located approximately 50 light years away in the Pegasus constellation – and hence named 51 Pegasi b – confirmed the beliefs of both philosophers and natural scientists throughout history that other worlds may have formed outside the Solar System. With their discovery, the two Nobel Prize confirmed this belief. But the increasingly frequent discoveries of exoplanets have raised new and exciting questions. The 4000 exoplanets discovered to date are extremely diverse. They have exotic characteristics, such as extremely short orbital periods that defy the general theories of planetary formation and evolution. One of the most fundamental questions addresses the uniqueness of the Solar System and planet Earth – the only celestial body known to harbour life.

Searching for Earth-like exoplanets with CHEOPS and PLATO

Two upcoming ESA missions, both with DLR involvement, will intensify research in this field. CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) – a small satellite mission under Swiss leadership – is scheduled for launch later this year on 17 December 2019. CHEOPS will characterise previously identified exoplanets (such as those discovered using the NGTS telescope system in Chile or the NASA/ESA space telescope Kepler) in more detail and search for new planets in known exoplanetary systems.

The PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) mission is scheduled for 2026. The consortium responsible for its scientific instrument is led by Heike Rauer of the DLR Institute of Planetary Research. Equipped with 26 individual telescopes and cameras, the PLATO space telescope will be the first instrument able to identify Earth-sized planets in the 'habitable', life-friendly zone around Sun-like stars, in which water can exist in liquid form. The mission will include the detection of planets using the transit method from space as well as subsequent measurements with other telescopes. These findings will help compile a detailed catalogue of the radius, mass, age and host star of each exoplanet.

These future discoveries may include rocky planets with atmospheres, the structure and composition of which will be determined by spectroscopic transit measurements (observing the changes to the light of the star as it passes through the planet’s atmosphere). This will be the primary role of the Atmospheric Remote-sensing Infrared Exoplanet Large-survey (ARIEL), the ESA exoplanetary mission scheduled for launch in 2028.

The Nobel Prize for Physics awarded to Mayor and Queloz demonstrates that the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a Sun-like star 25 years ago changed our understanding of the Universe and our place in it. In the near future, scientific and technological advances and opportunities, such as the PLATO mission, will enable us to obtain further insights into the origin and evolution of our own planet. This research hopes to find out whether exoplanets in the Milky Way, or even beyond, possess the conditions required for the emergence of life and, ultimately, answer the fundamental question of whether they once harboured life or continue to do so.

Contact
  • Ulrich Köhler
    Public relations coordinator
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    Institute of Planetary Research
    Telephone: +49 30 67055-215
    Fax: +49 30 67055-402
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489  Berlin
    Contact
  • Melanie-Konstanze Wiese
    Corporate Communications, Berlin, Neustrelitz, Dresden, Jena and Cottbus/Zittau
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)

    Public Affairs and Communications
    Telephone: +49 30 67055-639
    Fax: +49 30 67055-102
    Rutherfordstraße  2
    12489  Berlin-Adlershof
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