2011 was a great year in the search for exoplanets, and it looks like 2012 is shaping up to be pretty fruitful, as well. Yesterday morning, just four days into the new year, astronomers announced the discovery of four massive new alien worlds, each one orbiting a star of its own.
And here's something else that bodes well for exoplanet-hunting in the year ahead: these new planets were discovered not by NASA's hugely successful Kepler space telescope, but by the Hungarian-made Automated Telescope Network (HATNet) Project — a set of six, wide-field telescopes based at two observatories right here on Earth. Remember: in a little less than 3 years, the Kepler mission has quadrupled the number of worlds known to exist beyond our solar system; relative to findings made by Kepler, Earth-based discoveries like the one announced yesterday are actually pretty rare.
The four new planets — dubbed HAT-P-34b, HAT-P-35b, HAT-P-36b and HAT-P-37b — are all what astronomers refer to as "hot Jupiters." As their name suggests, hot Jupiters are gas giants that are typically at least as massive as the Jupiter in our own solar system, with one key difference: hot Jupiters orbit their parent stars at a much closer distance, hence "hot" Jupiter. (Another name for a hot Jupiter is "roaster planet").
Details of the discovery have been posted to arXiv.