California Observatory Discovers Two Large Planets Orbiting Nearby Star



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Two new large planets have been found orbiting a nearby star. But what makes the discovery interesting is they were found using a telescope at an observatory that was slated to be shuttered.

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Astronomers have just discovered two giant planets orbiting a nearby star, and that's thanks to a persistent graduate student at a hundred-year-old observatory that was nearly shut down. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has the story in this latest part of his project, Joe's Big Idea.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Even though Lick Observatory began operations in the 19th century, Sandra Faber says there's no two ways about it.

SANDRA FABER: Lick is not dead at all scientifically.

PALCA: Faber's opinion carries some weight. She's won a slew of prizes in astronomy and was Lick's director. So she was alarmed in 2013 when a budget crisis in California made Lick an appealing target.

FABER: There were credible people who were talking about shuddering Lick observatory within a six-month timescale.

PALCA: She and like-minded astronomers made the case to save Lick, and Lick's financial overseers relented. Here's Faber's argument. Yes, Lick doesn't have the biggest telescopes in the world, but it has led the way in developing technologies like adaptive optics that have revolutionized astronomy. And, just as important, it's an invaluable teaching tool.

FABER: If you're a student, you can get your idea, write the proposal, get the telescope time, write the paper.

PALCA: And even have your work showcased on NPR. At least that's what's happening to BJ Fulton.

BJ FULTON: Me and my team started observing with APF in about August of last year.

PALCA: APF is the Automated Planet Finder, a new instrument at Lick. Fulton is a grad student who searches for exoplanets, planets outside our solar system.

FULTON: We observed until about Christmastime every other night, essentially.

PALCA: Having so much telescope time paid off. Fulton and his colleagues found two new planets around a star known as HD 7924, a mere 54 light-years away.

FULTON: These planets are nothing like what we have in our solar system.

PALCA: Fulton says they're between six and eight times as massive as Earth.

FULTON: They orbit very close to their star.

PALCA: Closer than Mercury is to the sun in our solar system.

FULTON: And so they're very hot also.

PALCA: And, therefore, not likely to harbor life. As they report now in the Astrophysical Journal, this makes three planets known to orbit HD 7924. When BJ Fulton was born, no one knew about exoplanets. Astronomers announced the first one in the mid '90s when Fulton was 7. He says the discovery fired his imagination. And as it happens, he's from San Jose, not far from Lick.

FULTON: I grew up every day looking up at the telescopes at Lick Observatory, and to be able to finally be using them to discover planets is pretty amazing.

PALCA: Stoking the imagination is something astronomy is extremely good for, according to Sandy Faber, although it's hard to give that a dollar value.

FABER: Astronomy is like music. It doesn't feed you, but it feeds your soul.

PALCA: Faber hopes to make sure Lick provides soul food for a long time. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.