Sep. 27, 2007 An international team of astronomers is one step closer to answering the question, "Will the world end with a bang or a whimper?"
Using an array of telescopes around the globe, a team of 23 researchers led by Italian astronomer Dr. Roberto Silvotti of the Observatorio Astronomico di Capodimonte in Naples has spent seven years investigating the pulses of the star V391 Pegasi. This international collaboration has resulted in the discovery of a new planet -- Peg V392b -- the oldest planet known so far in the universe.
Prof. Elia Leibowitz, of Tel Aviv University's School of Physics and Astronomy was a member of the team. To date, astronomers around the world have discovered more than 200 planets outside our solar system, but Prof. Leibowitz says his new discovery can shed light on the state of our planet's future.
Prof. Leibowitz made his observations with a team at Tel Aviv University's Wise Observatory -- home to one of only a few telescopes in use today in the Middle East.
"The Peg V391 star unlike our sun, has already passed the "red giant" stage of its life. It is presently shrinking, on its way to becoming a "white dwarf" and dying," he explains. "Because a planet associated with Peg V391 has now been found, for the first time astronomers will be able to study the effect a dying sun has on its planet. This will help draw conclusions about what will happen to planet Earth when our sun starts dying in about 5 billion years."
The discovery suggests that earth, which is at a distance from the sun comparable to the distance of V391 Peg b from its sun, may be able to survive an apocalypse in 5 billion years time, when our sun runs out of hydrogen fuel and starts swelling into a red giant. The scientists involved in this research believe that V391 Peg b has survived through the red giant phase of its sun, which now burns helium rather than hydrogen.
Critical to the discovery of V391 Peg b was the world association WET -- for Whole Earth Telescope -- a group of cooperating observatories on almost every continent. During certain periods of the year, all of the participants view and measure the radiation of a specific star over the course of a few consecutive nights. The star Pegasi V391 was one of the target stars of this network.
Says Prof. Leibowitz, "We are continuing our research on this planet and star. If there is another planet out there, we think there is a good chance we will see it."
Besides providing the raw data from the Middle East region, Prof. Leibowitz also collaborated with Dr. Silvotti on the statistical analysis of the data set collected in Taiwan, Europe and North America. "This analysis is a significant part of observational investigation," says Prof. Leibowitz. "Its function is to demonstrate that an observed feature in nature, claimed to be a discovery of something new in the world, is not merely a random, meaningless phenomenon."
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