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Exoplanet Reports Exaggerated 55

Posted by timothy
from the visit-the-off-world-colonies dept.
The Bad Astronomer writes "The reports of the first direct picture of an exoplanet are misleading. The real news is that an image of a probable exoplanet taken in 2008 using a telescope in Hawaii have been confirmed — it's a planet. In fact, exoplanets have been directly imaged before; the first was in 2005. More images of other planets were released in 2008. To be specific: this new planet is the first to be directly imaged orbiting a sun-like star using observations made from the ground. That's actually still quite a technological achievement, but don't be misled by hyperbolic headlines."
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Exoplanet Reports Exaggerated

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  • Well, it's not insulting. I've written for both magazines! :) However, my source was the news release from Gemini, as well as a few previous articles I had written on this topic as well as this particular object.
  • by superluminique (1567063) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @06:19PM (#32750904)

    Good point CheshireCatCO and I got stressed about talking too fast so I went and read the actual papers.

    The thing is that this planet was only found last year, in a recent Hubble image. Astrophysicists saw it in the recent image and went back to the archives and also identified it in the 1995 archive image.

    2004, according to Phil. And unless he's deliberately being misleading, they were in fact looking for the planet:

    The 2004 actually refers to a 2005 Nature paper (A planetary system as the origin of structure in Fomalhaut's dust belt [harvard.edu]), presenting the modelling of the debris disk which strongly suggests that a planet has to be there. There is no mention of any candidate point source in the image.

    (I, for one, can recall people identifying locations where a planet ought to be in that disk as early as Fall 2002. So it's credible to me that they'd be looking with HST in 2004.)

    Granted, they didn't announce it right away. But, then, that's also the basis for you claim for priority of 1RXS 1609, so it seems like Phil is still right.

    Of course, from the 2005 paper and strong prior evidence, they decided to follow up on the source and got images in 2006 and in 2008. Unless I missed the article there is not paper identifying a point source in the image as a candidate planet until the 2008 Science paper announcing the discovery of a planet around Formalhaut (Optical Images of an Exosolar Planet 25 Light-Years from Earth [harvard.edu]). If there was a peer-reviewed paper, it would be cited in the 2008 Science paper and, moreover, it is logical there is none since 1. they didn't want to be scooped, 2. they had to be cautious until the discovery was confirmed.

    So even if people saw speckles in the debris disk of Formalhaut, it would have been difficult to claim them as planets unless spectroscopy would confirm or proper motion as it ended up being the case. In the case of 1RXS 1609, things are different since not only was there an optical detection but also a spectrum. The spectrum clearly showed it was a planet but could not unambiguously tell that it was gravitationally bounded to the star because of the lack of proper motion. So regardless of whether or not the planet was gravitationally bounded to the star (say, it could have been ejected from another system and just being running away), it still would have been, arguably, the first direct detection of an exoplanet.

    Anyway, as everyone can see, the whole thing relies on what the definition of "first" is. Is it first published detection? First recorded image that shows it? etc. In any case, Phil does good work and I appreciate it. I just found that, ironically, the news about the news was being made a bit too spectacular.

  • by superluminique (1567063) on Wednesday June 30, 2010 @09:12PM (#32752122)

    Sorry, I forgot to include the link to the 1RXS 1609 papers: the original "discovery" paper [harvard.edu] and the "confirmation" paper [harvard.edu]. So to answer your question, no this isn't the first publication about 1RXS 1609, the 2008 one did announce the discovery. And I don't think I'm changing my argument. Not sure exactly what the "boo" about published papers means but in my first post, when I talk about discoveries and findings I implicity (sorry if I didn't make it clear) refer to literature. Here, the point is simply that if someone noticed anything around Formalhaut before the 2008 paper, it hasn't been published or announced so then it's kind of irrelevant. Of course, it's irrelevant to the extent of what one considers a "first".

    Anyways, one would probably agree that arguing about it is a bit pointless because there is no clear answer and it just becomes circular after a while. I personally know many of the authors on both the Formalhaut and the 1RXS 1609 teams, and I can say that I've witnessed very good ethics from them. For instance, during a talk one of them would refer to the discovery as the "first" with quotation marks and mention the other one as also being the "first". One last remark is that fact that peer reviewed journals usually forbid the use of words like "first" and such. Science and Nature are very strict about it and it's certainly a good thing because it alleviates unneeded arguments ;-)

  • by superluminique (1567063) on Thursday July 01, 2010 @01:08AM (#32753460)
    The actual printed publication of 1RXS 1609 came out after that of Formalhaut but the results came up earlier. The reason being that Science and Nature (Formalhaut's was published in Science) have a much quicker turn around from the time the paper is initially submitted to the point where it comes out of press (it depends but it can be something like a month), whereas more specialized journals like the Astrophysical Journal in which 1RXS 1609's was published are extremely long (several months). Of course, no one in the field waits for the printed paper; typically they are put on ArXiV [arxiv.org] way before, most of the time after they have been accepted so that the authors know it has been referred and won't be modified further (there are still a few months between the time the paper gets accepted and it gets published). So, the 1RXS 1609 discovery came out and made up the headlines before, though again everything can be argued and I personally think it's pretty much a tie game. Bottom line, I don't say that Phil is all wrong, all I'm saying is that things are a bit more complicated that they look like. I hope it can help you understand. Cheers.

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