A Planet Is `Reborn'

THE UNIVERSE SEEMED TO get a little friendlier in 1995 when a planet was discovered circling a star in the constellation Pegasus. Discovered by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory, it was the first normal-size planet found orbiting a sun-like star, and, although too close to its sun to support life, raised hopes that more hospitable bodies might be out there. But skeptics refuted its existence.

Now the planet has a new lease on life, thanks to its harshest critic. In the Jan. 8 issue of Nature, David F. Gray, an astronomer at Canada's University of Western Ontario, admits that "a planet may indeed be the best explanation" for the clues spotted by the Swiss astronomers. Before, Gray produced evidence that those clues--variations in light indicating a rotating gravitational force such as a planet--were caused by huge tidal surges, common occurrences between stars. Now, Gray admits his evidence has vanished.

The new planet doesn't follow conventional theories of planetary formation, in that it seems too massive to have formed so close to a star. Its existence could mean that planetary systems are more common than previously thought. Even if not, astronomers still expect to find scores of stars with planets in the next few years. Maybe one of these planets will support life.

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