Stellar Wobble - Problems

Problems

The major problem with Doppler spectroscopy is that it can only measure movement along the line-of-sight, and so depends on a measurement (or estimate) of the inclination of the planet's orbit to determine the planet's mass. If the orbital plane of the planet happens to line up with the line-of-sight of the observer, then the measured variation in the star's radial velocity is the true value. However, if the orbital plane is tilted away from the line-of-sight, then the true effect of the planet on the motion of the star will be greater than the measured variation in the star's radial velocity, which is only the component along the line-of-sight. As a result, the planet's true mass will be higher than expected.

To correct for this effect, and so determine the true mass of an extrasolar planet, radial velocity measurements can be combined with astrometric observations, which track the movement of the star across the plane of the sky, perpendicular to the line-of-sight. Astrometric measurements allows researchers to check whether objects that appear to be high mass planets are more likely to be brown dwarfs.

A further problem is that the gas envelope around certain types of stars can expand and contract, and some stars are variable. This method is unsuitable for finding planets around these types of stars, as changes in the stellar emission spectrum caused by the intrinsic variability of the star can swamp the small effect caused by a planet.

The method is best at detecting very massive objects close to the parent star — so-called "hot Jupiters" – which have the greatest gravitational effect on the parent star, and so cause the largest changes in its radial velocity. Observation of many separate spectral lines and many orbital periods allows the signal to noise ratio of observations to be increased, increasing the chance of observing smaller and more distant planets, but planets like the Earth remain undetectable with current instruments.

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