Monday, September 15, 2008

First photo of planet around "normal" star

One of the most exciting stories in science is the growing list of planets discovered in other star systems. Most of these "exoplanets" have been discovered by indirect methods rather than direct imaging.

Today a new photo was released of a planet orbiting a star called 1RXS J160929.1-210524, about 500 light-years away. The star is similar to our own sun but younger. The photograph was taken from Mauna Kea in Hawaii in near-infrared using adaptive optics. The planet, about eight times the mass of Jupiter, is circled in red at upper left.



The discovery still has to be followed up with several years of observations to prove that the planet is actually orbiting the star and not aligned by chance. If it holds up it will be an important scientific first.

I am beginning to hold out hope that in my lifetime, an orbiting telescope will take an image or video of a distant planet with an atmosphere, oceans and continents not unlike this grainy NASA video of the Earth-moon system from 30 million miles out in space. Even a single blue pixel in an image would fire the imagination to life with the possibilities.

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