Discovering exoplanets: the role of Italian astronomers

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The United Federation of Planets was founded in 2161 by the following members: Andoria, Earth, Tellar Prime, Vulcan. In 2373, the United Federation of Planets consisted of at least 150 member planets, spread over 8000 light years.

Of course, the interplanetary federal republic of Star Trek is only a fictional invention, but presently, almost every day the discovery of some new extrasolar planets is announced. On 22nd October 2013, according to the The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, the 1000th extrasolar planet was officially discovered. At 13th November 2013, 1040 planets, 788 planetary systems and 173 multiple planet systems were known. The first terrestrial-mass planets ever detected, in 1992, are orbiting around the pulsar PSR 1257+12. In 1995, Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the University of Geneva announced the first detection of an exoplanet orbiting an ordinary main-sequence star (51 Pegasi). As reported by John Matson on Scientific American, it is actually impossible to pinpoint exactly the 1000th exoplanet because the catalogue established in February 1995 by Jean Schneider is inclusive by design, boasting a significantly larger count than some similar lists. However, this is an important symbolic goal for the search for extrasolar planets.

The Italian exo-planetologists are very active and involved in several projects and surveys. One example is GAPS, the Global Architecture of Planetary Systems (Paper 1, Paper 2). At the moment, 61 astronomers of our National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) and other 16 researchers from a total of 22 institutions (11 in Italy and 11 abroad) are involved in this long-term multi-purpose observational programme, which has started using the newly installed high resolution spectrograph HARPS-N at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG), a 3.58m optical/infrared telescope located on the Island of La Palma, in the Canary Islands. This project aims to characterize and discover some terrestrial planets by combining transits and Doppler measurements to derive their masses and study the frequency of low-mass planets as a function of stellar mass, metallicity and density.

On 24th and 25th October 2013, during the 3rd GAPS Progress Meeting in Palermo, more than 40 astronomers discussed on the recent results obtained using HARPS-N at TNG. This high-precision radial-velocity instrument can detect a planet candidate around its host star and determine its main characteristics. According to the directory Exoplanets in Italy, more than 130 researchers are actually working on extrasolar planets in Italy. The past or current projects that involve Italian scientists are listed in this page. The scientific topics investigated by our astronomers are various: for instance, planetary habitability and orbits, abundances and parameters in stars hosting planets, star-planet interaction and planetary atmospheres, magnetic activity of stars with planets and search for planets in binary systems.

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