Friday, November 14, 2008

Astronomers Take First Ever Pics of Other Planetary Systems [The Truth Is Out There]


Huge astronomy news! For the first time EVER, galaxy researchers have taken pictures of planets orbiting a sun-star, much like our own. The first, taken by the much beloved Hubble Telescope, shows a planet orbiting the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis. The second picture, snapped by upstaging Hawaiian observatories Gemini and Keck, shows two young planets orbiting a completely different star located 130 light-years from us! Take that Hubble! But I warn you—like the ultrasounds your friends show you of their three-month old fetus—these pictures wow mostly because of what they are, not because of what they look like.

This is what the Hubble Telescope saw, conveniently labeled by our friends at NASA. Where is the planet, you ask? Do you see that little underlined part to the right? That's the unimaginatively named Fomalhaut b! To get the image, Hubble's camera needed to block out the brightest part of the star, which shines millions of times brighter than the planet itself.

And here's the picture taken by the Gemini and Keck observatories of the bodies orbiting Star HR8799. HR8799 is about 1.5 times more massive than our sun, and five times more luminous. Like the Hubble's image, this star needed to have its light blocked too in order for us to see the planets. These two, despite being an even greater distance away, were slightly easier to find since they're young. Being only about 6! 0 millio n years old, they're still glowing from leftover heat from their formation, making them brighter than Fomalhaut B, which only glows when reflecting light from Fomalhaut.

Here's an artistic rendering of Star HR8799 and it's planets. The third planet hasn't been imaged yet, but thanks to mathematical calculations, we know it's there!

So in case you were doubting it—yes, other star systems exist. And as our galactical camera technology gets better, the pictures will start looking more like actual planets, rather than fetal specks on a giant Eye of Sauron. [Bad Astronomy]

Image credits: NASA and the Gemini Observatory