According to a new study, the earliest evidence of exoplanets dates back to 1917, but astronomers had no clue about it. Exoplanets were first confirmed by science in the 1990s.
Researchers found that a noted astronomer had evidence of planetary debris around a dwarf star, which points to the existence of at least an exoplanet in the star’s neighborhood decades prior the official discovery of exoplanets.
Scientists found the shocking evidence after sifting through the large astronomical glass collection at Carnegie Observatories. On one plate, there was the spectral image of a white dwarf, which is an ancient star that is incredibly dense. Astronomers know that a teaspoonful of this star’s material would weigh on our planet as much as an adult elephant.
John Mulchaey, head of Carnegie Observatories and assistant researcher involved in the new study, noted that the century-old plate contains the first recorded evidence of a white dwarf and its gaseous layers. Mulchaey described the discovery as ‘incredible.’
The researcher added that it is surprising that the discovery remained hidden for so long though it was made by a famous astronomer at the time: Walter Adams. Adams caught the chemical blueprint of the white star, which revealed elements that were not supposed to be there.
For instance, the nearby gas clouds contained iron, magnesium, calcium, which should have sunk into the white dwarf due to their weight. But the chemical elements are a hint that the planetary system is extremely ‘polluted’ with tons of new debris showering the ancient star on a regular basis.
Polluted white dwarfs were first documented 12 years ago.
The white dwarf was a surprising finding since the research team was convinced that white dwarfs so old should not have any planetary material around them. Planetary material is usually found in younger systems.
Yet, the research team acknowledged that they did not found a full-fledged exoplanet in the proximity of the strange white dwarf. But the debris rings around it clearly pinpoint to the gravitational influence of a fully-formed exoplanet (or more).
“The process couldn’t occur unless there were planets there,”
said Jay Farihi, lead author of the recent analysis and researcher with University College London in the U.K.
A research paper on the new findings was published in the journal New Astronomy Reviews.
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