Skip to Content
Space

The Nobel Prize in physics has gone to the discovery of an exoplanet orbiting a star

October 8, 2019
Artist's impression of 51 Pegasi b.
Artist's impression of 51 Pegasi b.ESO

Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were awarded one half of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics today for their discovery of the first planet outside our solar system orbiting a sun-like star, which kicked off the dawn of exoplanet science in astronomy. 

The history: In 1995, Mayor and Queloz identified a planet orbiting the sun-like star 51 Pegasi, over 50 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. The pair used a spectroscope to detect tiny wobbles in the light emitted by the host star. These changes turned out to be induced by the gravitational effects of a large, hot, gaseous exoplanet orbiting the star 4.3 million miles away. That exoplanet, later named 51 Pegasi b, was confirmed a week later by another team using the Lick Observatory in California.

Although the first exoplanet detection was made in 1992 (with the discovery of a pair of planets orbiting a pulsar 2,300 light-years away), 51 Pegasi b was the first exoplanet to be found orbiting a sun-like star. 

Just the tip of the iceberg: Since then, astronomers have discovered more than 4,000 exoplanets across the galaxy, spanning a huge range of types and sizes. We now believe most stars are probably orbited by planets––a radical shift from the conventional thought of most of the 20th century. Many of these discoveries have teased hopes of finding another world that’s habitable to life

The other half: Canadian scientist James Peebles won the other share of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics for his work in studying the faint afterglow of radiation left over from the Big Bang, which created a framework for modern cosmology. Peebles’s theories eventually led to the characterization of dark matter and dark energy, and to the realization that only 5% of the universe is made of ordinary matter. 

Deep Dive

Space

NASA’s return to the moon is off to a rocky start

Artemis aims to deliver astronauts back to the lunar surface by 2025, but it’s riding on an old congressional pet project.

How the James Webb Space Telescope broke the universe

Scientists were in awe of the flood of data that arrived when the new space observatory booted up.

James Webb Space Telescope: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2023

A marvel of precision engineering, JWST could revolutionize our view of the early universe.

What’s next in space

The moon, private space travel, and the wider solar system will all have major missions over the next 12 months.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.