Personal recollections of an astrophysicist shed new light on the 1995 discovery on 51 Pegasi b

Once upon a time, an exoplanet was discovered
Mayor and Queloz in front of the dome of the EULER 1.2
m-telescope at La Silla Observatory. Credit: Springer

In recent history, a very important achievement was the
discovery, in 1995, of 51 Pegasi b, the first extrasolar
planet ever found around a normal star other than the Sun.

In a paper published in EPJ H, Davide Cenadelli from
the Aosta Valley Astronomical Observatory (Italy) interviews
Michel Mayor from Geneva Observatory (Switzerland) about his
personal recollections of discovering this exoplanet. They
discuss how the development of better telescopes made the
possible. They also delve into how
this discovery contributed to shaping a new community of
scholars pursuing this new field of research. In closing,
they reflect upon the cultural importance that the 51 Pegasi
b discovery had in terms of changing our view of the cosmos.

Michel Mayor was born in Lausanne in 1942. He turned to
astronomy when he did his PhD at the Geneva Observatory,
where he focused on elucidating the theoretical nature of the
spiral arms of galaxies, which make it possible for stars and
nebulae to pass through without permanently remaining inside
the arms. Later on his interest shifted to solar-type stars,
and in 1991 he published the result of 15 years of work on
the statistics of such solar-type stars. In hindsight, this
paper played a significant role in boosting, at a later time,
his interest in brown dwarfs and planets. He feels that the
search for exoplanets was a direct continuation of that work.

He then relates what drove the development of a spectrograph
called ELODIE, designed to offer very high sensitivity in
measuring the of . ELODIE commenced operation in April
1994, and Mayor and his colleague Queloz discovered 51 Peg b
in July 1995. As the first planet ever discovered around a
normal star other than the Sun, it was a ground-breaking
achievement. A few years later, Mayor contributed to
designing and building another state-of-the-art spectrograph,
called HARPS, that is now allowing astronomers to probe the
universe further. Altogether about 300 new exoplanets have
been discovered by Mayor and his co-workers since 51 Peg b.

Explore further:
A trio
of super-Earths

More information: Michel Mayor et al, Exoplanets – the
beginning of a new era in astrophysics, The European
Physical Journal H
(2018). DOI: 10.1140/epjh/e2018-80063-1

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