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June 13, 2002

Yahoo!News does it again! Alert readers may remember when Yahoo!News made three astronomy mistakes in a single article. Well, they gave that record a run for its money today.

In a press release about the discovery of more extrasolar planets, they had this to say:

US astronomers announced the discovery of a solar system similar to our own, at a press conference at NASA's headquarters here.


University of California at Berkeley astronomy professor Geoffrey Marcy discovered the star [emphasis mine], named 55 Cancri, 15 years ago [emphasis mine], jointly with his colleague at Washington's Carnegie Institution Paul Butler.

55 Cancri is a sixth magnitude star, meaning it is just visible to the unaided eye on a clear, dark night. It has been known for thousands of years. What the article meant to say is that Marcy's team discovered a planet orbiting the star, not that they discovered the star itself. Furthermore, the planet was announced in 1996; 6 years ago, not 15. The team has been observing the star for 15 years, but that's entirely different.

They then go on:

55 Cancri is located 41 million light-years from the Earth [emphasis mine], in the constellation of Cancer. The star, believed to be around five billion years old, is visible to the naked eye, astronomers said.
At that distance a supernova would not be visible to the naked eye! 55 Cancri is 41 light years away, not 41 million. That's already a pretty big distance, so there's no reason to inflate it.

Somewhere down the line, someone badly garbled the original press release. That can be easy to do sometimes, unfortunately, but I still wish it happened less often!

If you want to find out more about extrasolar planets, then try the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia which has a lot of info. Also, The California and Carnegie Planet Search site has info about the team that is finding most of the planets.

My thanks go again to perennial Bad Reader Andrew Lloyd for sending this news to me.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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