1917 exoplanetary system discovery remained hidden, until now

13 Apr 2016

Having remained hidden in a basement for nearly 100 years, a reading from the depths of space has shocked researchers after it was found to contain evidence of our first discovery of an exoplanetary system outside our own solar system.

An exoplanetary system had seemingly been an elusive sight in the wider universe, with the current generation of astronomers having failed to spot a planetary system much like our own solar system, at least until this recent discovery.

According to the Carnegie Institution for Science, the slide was discovered following a request by New Astronomy Reviews for access to files for an article it was looking to publish on planetary systems surrounding white dwarf stars.

In particular, the publication was looking to search through stellar spectra images, which are recordings of the amount of light emitted by distant stars, and which teach astronomers of the time about the possible chemical composition of distant stars.

The article’s author, Jay Farihi of University College London, gained access to Carnegie’s archives to locate the 1917 plate of a white dwarf discovered by Dutch-American astronomer Adriaan van Maanen, but when he examined the spectrum he found something rather extraordinary.

1917 slide

The 1917 photographic plate spectrum of van Maanen’s star from the Carnegie Observatories’ archive. Image via The Carnegie Institution for Science

Evidence of a polluted white dwarf system

By analysing the absorption lines found on the spectra image – where breaks in the line indicate the star’s light was being absorbed by various substances – Farihi was able to conclude the presence of heavier elements, such as calcium, magnesium and iron.

However, this would appear to defy convention as these elements should have completely disappeared into the star’s interior, meaning that these elements would appear to show the existence of a planetary system, like our own.

“The unexpected realisation that this 1917 plate from our archive contains the earliest recorded evidence of a polluted white dwarf system is just incredible,” said Carnegie Observatories’ director John Mulchaey.

“And the fact that it was made by such a prominent astronomer in our history as Walter Adams enhances the excitement.”

While the planets orbiting van Maanen’s star have yet to be detected, Farihi said he was quite confident that it is only a matter of time before they are located using modern astronomical equipment.

Exoplanetary system illustration via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic