Planet hunting and forming

A recent gathering of extrasolar planet hunters for a panel discussion in Pasadena has sparked off another article or two summarising the hunt for planets outside our solar system. Now this potted history might seem like an occasional aide memoir for science writers, but a careful look at the ever evolving history of exoplanetary research shows a little more about how science works – it can be a little revisionist. By that, I don’t mean old professors falling out of favour and being airbrushed from the university magazine, more that when research is published, it falls under the eyes of other researchers, who may be tempted to check the numbers of their competitors. Here we have a reanalysis of planetary parameters derived from Kepler data, checking up on the numbers posited by the planets’ discoverers.

This constant checking and rechecking of the data inevitably feeds back into the theories supported by the data. The NICE model of planetary formation, which sees planets forming in different locations from their present day locations and migrating further in and out from the Sun, is a development of the simpler accretion of material in a protoplanetary disc. It benefits from the extra data gathered in the search for extrasolar planets, which has provided data on solar systems in vastly different configurations from our own.

It sounds a bit messy, and it often is, but this is how science works – gathered data is analysed, reanalysed, regathered and analysed again until they can be slotted in to some usable theoretical framework, at which point predictions can be made about new data to pick up, and old data to be rechecked once more.

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