Alien Planets

The Universe
Season 2
18 episodes
See below for purchasing options
DVD & Blu-ray
"The Universe" episode no. 15 (season 2 opener)
  • written and directed by executive producer Douglas J. Cohen
  • edited by Kevin Browne
  • science consultants Geoff Marcy & Greg Laughlin

  • narrated by Erik Thompson
  • Original Music by Eric Amdahl
  • Flight 33 Productions, (c) 2007 A & E TV Networks
  • 1 documentary @ 44 minutes

Data Capsule Review

by Martin Izsak

This documentary is an absolute classic episode of this series, as it is entirely devoted to a popular and exciting topic - the history of the exploration of extra-solar planets which orbit stars outside of our solar system. The episode dives deep into the topic, giving us lots of detail about many planets discovered, and how such discoveries were made under challenging and sometimes disheartening circumstances.

This is easily astronomer Geoff Marcy's episode more than anyone else's, as he gets loads of screentime (deservedly so) and gives us the up and down story of his career with long-time collaborator Paul Butler.

Two thumbs way up on this episode - easily one of my most cherished favourites from "The Universe" series.

Exoplanets discussed include:

  • 51 Pegasi b (Not only is it not revealed that Marcy nicknamed this planet Bellerophon when he and Butler officially confirmed its existence, but the episode insists the planet has no Greek-God name at all. Haaa hahaahaha!)
  • 70 Virginis b (first planet discovered with massively elliptical orbit,
    previously mislabeled as "Goldilocks")
  • "Tres-4" (hot jupiter in Hercules, pronounced as "Trace Four",
    first star transit detected in fall 2007)
  • HD 189733 b
  • HD 80606 b in Ursa Major, 200 LY distant
  • pulsar planets 7000 trillion miles distant,
    detected before 51 Pegasi b (sadly without naming them or mentioning how we detected them prior to the star-wobble technique that revealed the hot jupiters)

  • Gliese 436 b in Leo, 30 LY distant,
    20 times bigger than Earth, similar to Neptune in mass/size

  • Gliese 876 d, one of the smallest planets yet discovered at the time of this episode (6-7 times Earth size), and in the habitable zone of a system known to have at least 3 planets in orbit of the M dwarf star

Geoff Marcy: "It's embarrassing, frankly, when you think about how we humans imagined planets would orbit other stars, how common they would be, what properties they would have... Guess what? We imagined that those planets would look just like the planets that orbit our sun. Extraordinarily nearsighted in retrospect, and for a scientist, I find it embarrassing that I was a party to this. But in fact, what we've learned is that planets around other stars are remarkably different from the representatives we have around our sun."

from the disc sleeve:

Alien Planets:
Just a decade ago, not a single planet was known to exist beyond our solar system. Astronomers have since discovered over 200 of these alien worlds - planets with such fierce conditions they seem inhabitable. But have planet hunters finally found proof of other Earth-like worlds?

Chapter List:

  1. Introduction
  2. Types of Worlds
  3. Hot Jupiters
  4. Extreme Weather
  5. Strange Worlds
  6. Super Telescopes

As this program was made, the year was 2007, and the exoplanet count was just over 200.

And of course, who can forget disaster-enthusiast Alex Filippenko's imagining of being nuked with intense radiation blasts on the surface of a pulsar planet? To each, his own pleasures, I guess...

Participants include:

Geoff Marcy

Astronomer, Exoplanet Locator
University of California, Berkeley

As of the first 300 exoplanets discovered by 2009, he and colleague Paul Butler had been credited with finding more extra-solar planets than anyone else.

Greg Laughlin

University of California, Santa Cruz

creates computer models of solar systems such as Alpha Centauri

Alex Filippenko

University of California, Berkeley

leads a team that has found over 600 supernovae in one decade through automated intergalactic scanning.

Debra Fischer

San Francisco State University

Alan Boss

Carnegie Institution

reviewed the paper of the first discovery of a hot jupiter extra-solar planet: 51 Pegasi b, in 1995

Beth Biller

Astronomer, University of Hawaii

part-time dancer / fire performer

Adam Showman

Planetary Scientist, University of Arizona

predicts wind speeds and weather on extra-solar planets

Laird Close

University of Arizona

works to build a telescope sensitive and accurate enough to actually photograph extra-solar planets (completion expected in 2016)


This documentary has become available on DVD and Blu-ray.
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The Universe
Season 2 Box Set
18 episodes




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Read the data capsule review for another episode: "The Milky Way"

Or, get an overview of all episodes of this series from our
Episode Guide Catalogue for "The Universe".

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