From Universe Today: “What is the Radial Velocity Method?”


Universe Today

22 Dec , 2017
Matt Williams

Artist’s impression of Proxima b, which was discovered using the Radial Velocity method. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The hunt for extra-solar planets sure has heated up in the past decade or so! Thanks to improvements made in instrumentation and methodology, the number of exoplanets discovered (as of December 1st, 2017) has reached 3,710 planets in 2,780 star systems, with 621 system boasting multiple planets. Unfortunately, due to the limits astronomers are forced to contend with, the vast majority have been discovered using indirect methods.

When it comes to these indirect methods, one of the most popular and effective is the Radial Velocity Method – also known as Doppler Spectroscopy. This method relies on observing the spectra stars for signs of “wobble”, where the star is found to be moving towards and away from Earth. This movement is caused by the presence of planets, which exert a gravitational influence on their respective sun.


Essentially, the Radial Velocity Method consists not of looking for signs of planets themselves, but in observing a star for signs of movement. This is deduced by using a spectometer to measure the way in which the star’s spectral lines are displaced due to the Doppler Effect – i.e. how light from the star is shifted towards the red or blue end of the spectrum (redshift/blueshift).

Diagram detailing the Radial Velocity (aka. Doppler Shift) method. Credit: Las Cumbres Observatory.

These shifts are indications that the star is moving away from (redshift) or towards (blueshift) Earth. Based on the star’s velocity, astronomers can determine the presence of a planet or system of planets. The speed at which a star moves around its center of mass, which is much smaller than that of a planet, is nevertheless measurable using today’s spectrometers.

Until 2012, this method was the most effective means of detecting exoplanets, but has since come to be replaced by the Transit Photometry.

Planet transit. NASA/Ames

Nevertheless, it remains a highly effective method and is often relied upon in conjunction with the Transit Method to confirm the existence of exoplanets and place constraints on their size and mass.

See the full article here .

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