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Systemic - Characterizing Extrasolar Planetary Systems

The inverse problem

13 Jun 2010, 23:33 UTC
The inverse problem
(200 words excerpt, click title or image to see full post)

Transit timing variations have a certain allure. Most extrasolar planets are found by patiently visiting and revisiting a star, and the glamour has already begun to drain from this enterprise. Inferring, on the other hand, the presence of an unknown body — a “Planet X” — from its subtle deranging influences on the orbit of another, already known, planet is a more cooly cerebral endeavor. Yet to date, the TTV technique has not achieved its promise. The planet census accumulates exclusively via tried and true methods. 455 ± 21 at last count.
Backing a planet out of the perturbations that it induces is an example of an inverse problem. The detection of Neptune in 1846 remains the classic example. In that now increasingly distant age where new planets were headline news, the successful solution of an inverse problem was a secure route to scientific (and material) fame. The first TTV-detected planet won’t generate a chaired position for its discoverer, but it will most certainly be a feather in a cap.
Where inverse problems are concerned, being lucky can be of equal or greater importance than being right. Both Adams’ and Le Verrier’s masses and semi-major axes for Neptune were badly ...

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