NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has discovered 16 extrasolar planet candidates orbiting a variety of distant stars in the central region of our Milky Way galaxy.
The planet bonanza was uncovered during a Hubble survey, called the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). Hubble looked farther than has ever successfully been searched for extrasolar planets. Hubble peered at 180,000 stars in the crowded central bulge of our galaxy 26,000 light-years away. That is one-quarter the diameter of the Milky Way’s spiral disk. The results will appear in the Oct. 5 issue of the journal Nature.
This is an image of one-half of the Hubble Space Telescope field of view in the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). The field contains approximately 150,000 stars, down to 30th magnitude. The field is so crowded with stars because Hubble was looking across 26,000 light-years of space in the direction of the center of our galaxy. The green circles identify 9 stars that are orbited by planets with periods of a few days.
This tally is consistent with the number of planets expected to be uncovered from such a distant survey, based on previous exoplanet detections made in our local solar neighborhood. Hubble’s narrow view covered a swath of sky no bigger in angular size than two percent the area of the full moon. When extrapolated to the entire galaxy, Hubble’s data provides strong evidence for the existence of approximately 6 billion Jupiter-sized planets in the Milky Way.