In its first months of operation, the Lick Observatory's newest telescope Automated Planet Finder (APF) has found two new planetary systems, giving astronomers a taste of planetary riches to come. The APF has been operating robotically night after night since January, searching nearby stars for Earth-sized planets. Every night the fully autonomous system checks the weather, decides which stars to observe, and moves the telescope from star to star throughout the night, collecting measurements that will reveal the presence of planets.
The first two planetary systems detected by the APF were initially suspected based on data Vogt's team got at Keck, but were only confirmed after repeated observations with the APF. One of the systems (HD 141399) consists of four gas giant planets, similar to the four gas giants in our solar system except that their orbits are much closer to their star. The other system (GJ 687) features a Neptune-mass planet orbiting a red dwarf star. These are "garden variety systems," not dramatic discoveries, Vogt said. But APF has the sensitivity to detect the ultimate goal--an Earth-sized planet orbiting a nearby star in the habitable zone, where it is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water on the planet's surface.To read more, click here.