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Gliese 179 is a meager star. It's only a third as massive as the Sun, and about a thousandth as bright. Yet to the astronomers who study the birth of planets, the reddish-orange star is a celestial gem. It tells them that even the smallest stars can have big planets -- a finding that helps further our understanding of the birth of all planetary systems.
Gliese 179 is a red dwarf -- an M dwarf in the language of professional astronomers. All M dwarfs are a good bit smaller and fainter than the Sun, which suggests they formed from smaller clouds of gas and dust, with less material left over to form planets.
Because of that, many researchers didn't expect to find large planets around these stars. Their models said there shouldn't be enough gas and dust around the stars to make planets about the size of Jupiter, the giant of our own solar system.
But last year, a team of astronomers reported the discovery of a giant planet orbiting Gliese 179. The team included several astronomers from the University of Texas, and used the Hobby-Eberly Telescope at McDonald Observatory and the Keck Telescope in Hawaii.
The planet is at least 80 percent as massive as Jupiter -- a planetary giant by anyone's definition.
The planet provides one more clue in the effort to develop a model that tells us how planets are born around all stars -- including our own.
We'll talk about the search for planets around another M dwarf tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
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