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When the first exoplanet was identified and confirmed 20 years ago, there was enormous excitement, a sense of historic breakthrough and, with almost parallel intensity, sheer bewilderment. The planet, 51 Pegasi B, was larger than Jupiter yet orbited its parent star in 4 days. In other words, it was much closer to its star than Mercury is to ours and so was extremely hot.
According to theories of the time about planetary formation and solar system organization, a hot Jupiter so close to its sun was impossible. That kind of close-in orbit is where small rocky planets might be found, not Jupiters that belonged much further out and were presumed to always be cold.
That was a soberingly appropriate introduction to the new era of exoplanets, and set the stage for 20 years of surprises and re-evaluations of long held theories and understandings.
While the presence of close-in hot Jupiters certainly remains one of the great puzzles of the exo-planet era, the most consequential exo-planetary revelation has likely been the discovery of many planets larger than Earth and smaller than the next largest planet in our solar system — icy, gaseous Neptune.
These “super-Earths’ and “sub-Neptunes” range greatly in size since Neptune has a radius four times greater than our planet. What’s so surprising about the presence of this class of planets is that they are not just common, they are by far the most frequently detected exoplanets to date.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, however, is their absence in our planetary line-up.
It has long been predicted that the planetary make-up of our solar system would be typical of others, but now we know that is (again) wrong. As Mark Marley, a staff scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center who studies exoplanets put it, the widespread presence of “super-Earths” elsewhere and their absence in our system “is telling us something quite important.” The work to tease out what that might be has just begun, and will likely keep scientists busy for some time.… Read more