Planet Wars

Last year, two Bay Area astronomers said they had discovered planets outside our solar system and became instant media celebrities. Now, Paul Butler and Geoff Marcy face prominent scientific challengers who contend some of the new planets are nothing but

A scientific prodigy, Pan achieved a high position as a mainland China government scientist after graduating from the department of astronomy at Nadjing University in 1967, and later receiving his doctorate from Academy Sinica in Taiwan.

But he was intrigued by the careers of the Western scientists he met when he traveled to conferences -- the raucous hubbub of competing theories, the state-of-the-art research on multimillion-dollar instruments. In 1980, he was courted by the U.S. Naval Observatory and took a two-year appointment as a visiting scientist there. When offered an appointment at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1987, he grabbed it. And when Harvard scientists Mike Shao and Mark Colavita jumped to the West Coast to work on the next generation of interferometers -- arrays of individual telescopes whose images are combined -- Pan followed suit.

He would be joining an astronomical dream team that would operate in dream conditions. Working on Mount Palomar outside Los Angeles, in partnership with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, these scientists would develop the most advanced instrument of its kind. Under the direction of Caltech Professor Shri Kulkarni, Shao and Colavita would perfect the NASA interferometer, which delicately combines the light from several telescopes in order to detect objects no other instrument has. Pan would conduct astrophysical research on the instrument.

If all went as planned, the Caltech-JPL team would eventually move from Mount Palomar to Hawaii, where the researchers would turn the Keck astronomical observatory's apartment-size, 10-meter telescopes into a pair of combined-image binoculars. Thereafter, the team would spearhead NASA plans to send a binocular telescope into space at a cost some say could reach $10 billion.

The mission of this NASA-funded research program was almost Star Trekian in its ambitions: These men were to find planets -- and perhaps, the conditions for life -- in star systems far from our own.

But the dream team has faltered in its trajectory because Xiaopei Pan's research went where no NASA-funded scientists had gone before: The results, he believes, show that in at least some cases, Butler and Marcy have been wrong, and found planets when they should have found stars.

Other members of Pan's team disagree. Shri Kulkarni, the leader of Pan's research team, says Pan based his conclusions on observations made before the Mount Palomar interferometer was perfected, and before the team could make reliable scientific interpretations based on its data. Shao and Colavita say the same thing.

"If you want to go out on a limb, you could say it is resolved -- which wouldn't be wise," says Kulkarni of Pan's assertion. "It takes a couple of years to debug these systems. Most of us in the group don't think we can say anything about whether 51 Pegasi has a companion star."

A companion star, instead of a planet.
Pan, a specialist in the science of binary, or double, stars, likes to remind people that lone stars like our own sun are a minority in the universe. Most stars are paired with companions; these dual stars spin around in space, like the tips of a propeller blade, in eons-long dances. Some 70 percent of the stars in the universe are joined in this manner, akin to the double suns that hovered over Luke Skywalker's home in the movie Star Wars.

"The heavens are like a human society," says Pan. "Couples are common, singles are rare."

Pan believes at least two of the stars Butler and Marcy say have planets are actually being tugged around by binary companion stars. Using the experimental interferometer telescopes atop Mount Palomar, Pan has been observing the stars 51 Pegasi and tau Bootis over the course of nearly a year, and he believes he has enough evidence to submit a paper to Nature this month that would erase two of Butler and Marcy's planets from the sky.

If Pan's assertion were true, it would explain everything. It would account for Gray's stellar pulsations, the wobbles of Marcy and Butler -- everything. As they spin around in lock step, the competing gravity of binary stars can cause one another's mass of nuclear plasma to billow and slosh in a way similar to how David Gray says 51 Pegasi does. As for the wobbling back and forth that Marcy and Butler observed: Binary stars pull each other around in one of the most dramatic gravitational dances in the known universe.

Pan believes so strongly in his results that he plans to submit his paper to Nature in defiance of the other members of his research team. This is a highly unusual move. Until now, papers he has produced using the Palomar interferometer have also borne the names of Kulkarni, Colavita, and Shao.

Already, Kulkarni, Colavita, and Shao have gone into an astronomer's version of spin mode, working to stem the public relations disaster of NASA-funded astronomers bickering in public.

"We've now decided to have one spokesman at Caltech, which is me, one at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is Mark," says Kulkarni, warming to the task of public relations flack. "At the end of this conversation, you will realize that I haven't told you anything at all."

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