Just like in 1846
Uranus and Neptune have returned to nearly the configuration that they were in at the time of Neptune’s discovery in 1846. Using Solar System Live, it’s easy to see where the planets were located when Galle and d’ Arrest turned the Berlin Observatory’s 9-inch Fraunhofer refractor to the star fields of the ecliptic near right ascension 22 hours:
In 2011, Neptune, with its 165-year period period, will have made one full orbit since its discovery. Uranus, with an 84-year period, will have gone around the Sun almost two times.
Because the planets are fairly close to conjunction, Neptune has recently gone through the phase of its orbit where it exerts its largest perturbation on the motion of Uranus. This was similarly true in the years running up to 1846, and was responsible for LeVerrier’s sky predictions bearing such a stunning proximity to the spot where Neptune was actually discovered by Galle.
LeVerrier (and Adams) were quite fortunate. Without a computer, multi-parameter minimization is hard, and both astronomers cut down on their computational burden by assuming an incorrect distance for Neptune (based on Bode’s “law”). Their solutions were able to compensate for this incorrect assumption by invoking masses for Neptune that were much too large. They carried out remarkable calculations, but nevertheless, luck (in form of the fact that Uranus and Neptune had recently been near conjunction) played a considerable role.
Predictably, as soon as the real orbit of Neptune was determined, the playa haters tried to rush the stage. Benjamin Peirce of Harvard, in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 1, 65 (1847) described LeVerrier’s accomplishment as a mere “happy accident”:
I personally think that’s going a bit far. In any case, it’s interesting to compare the two independent predictions with the actual orbit of Neptune. I pulled the LeVerrier and Adams data in the following table from Baum and Sheehan’s book “In Search of Planet Vulcan” :
|semimajor axis (AU)||30.10||36.15||37.25|
|long. A. Node (deg)||131.794||–||–|
|long. Peri. (deg)||37.437||284.75||299.18|
|long. on Jan 1 1847||328.13||326.53||329.95|
There’s been no shortage of hard work, and there’s been no shortage of predictions and false alarms, but nevertheless, nobody has managed to discover another solar system planet via analysis of gravitational perturbations. With the extrasolar planets, however, the prospects look a lot better. In particular, the Systemic Backend collaboration can team up with amateur observers to do the trick.
On the Systemic Backend, there are many candidate planets that have had their orbits characterized. As is usually the case with planet predictions, most of the candidates will wind up being spurious, but it’s definitely true that real planets orbiting real stars have been detected by the Backend user base. For example, Gliese 581 c was accurately characterized by the Systemic users several months before it’s announcement by the Swiss (see this post) and the same holds true for 55 Cancri f (see this post).
In the happy circumstance that a candidate planet is part of a system with a known transiting planet, then there’s an increased probability that if the candidate planet exists then it can also be observed in transit. This provides a channel for detection that completely circumvents the need for professional astronomers to carry out confirming radial velocity observations. Amateur observers are currently pushing the envelope down to milli-mag precision. Here’s an out-of-transit observation of the parent star of XO-1b by Bruce Gary:
This photometry is potentially good enough to confirm a Neptune-sized planet in transit across a Solar-type star, which is absolutely amazing.
An initial proof-of-concept observation has recently been carried out. On the systemic backend, the users have been investigating the HD 17156 system, which contains a known transiting planet. User “japf ” (JosÃ© Fernandes) found that a lower chi-square fit to the published radial velocity data can be obtained if there’s a 6.2 Earth-mass companion on a 1.23 day orbit.
The best-fit eccentricity of the planet would bring it to a hair-raising 2 stellar radii of HD 17156, and if the planet is made of rock or water, it’ll be too small to detect, but nevertheless, it’s at least worth having a look. Jose sent the ephemeris to Bruce Gary, who observed on the opportunity falling on April 20, 04.5 UT.
No transit detected. This in itself was not at all surprising, given the long-shot nature of this particular candidate planet. What’s exciting, though, is that the full pipeline is now in place. There will definitely be strong candidates emerging over the coming months, and I think it’s quite probable that we’ll see a prediction-confirmation that is at least as good a match as was obtained for Neptune in 1846…