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Another Extrasolar Planet Possibly Imaged
Tue Nov 25, 8:35 am ET
Astronomers say they have directly imaged a giant exoplanet orbiting
its parent star. The announcement comes on the heels of two other
reports this month of direct images of planets beyond our solar
The new infrared image shows the object as a speck of light near the
star Beta Pictoris, which is 70 light-years from Earth, toward the
"We cannot yet rule out definitively, however, that the candidate
companion could be a foreground or background object," said study
team member Gael Chauvin of Grenoble Observatory in France. "To
eliminate this very small possibility, we will need to make new
observations that confirm the nature of the discovery."
Chauvin and other French astronomers discovered the candidate planet
using the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope.
The possible planet is estimated to weigh about eight times the mass
of Jupiter with an orbit of eight astronomical units (AU) from its
star, where one AU is the average Earth-sun distance.
Astrophysicist Sara Seager of MIT, who was not involved in the latest
discovery, said while the possibility is exciting, another more
convincing image of the object is in order. "We want to make sure
it's moving together with the star," Seager said.
Another image would show whether the star is moving at a different
speed relative to this object and other background objects or if the
star and planet are moving together (which would help to confirm this
is indeed a planet).
Astronomers had thought a planet could be responsible for
irregularities seen in the debris disk, first imaged in 1994,
surrounding Beta Pictoris. As a planet treks around its star, the
planet jostles and tugs on pieces of dust and debris, shaping the
"Beta Pic has been teasing astronomers for the past two decades with
hints of an orbiting planet," said University of California,
Berkeley, astronomer Paul Kalas, who was not directly involved with
the study. Kalas led a team of astronomers who reported this month
the first visible-light snapshot of a single-planet system around the
The researchers say the object does explain the warped disk. "The
candidate companion has exactly the mass and distance from its host
star needed to explain all the disk's properties," said team leader
Anne-Marie Lagrange of the Grenoble Observatory.
The team tried to rule out other non-planet possibilities. For
instance, they looked at images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope
of the system, which would likely reveal background and foreground
They also used three independent detection methods to rule out the
possibility that the point source of light was just an artifact of
the observing instrument.
"Overall, this is an exciting discovery that could be verified in
just a few weeks time since Beta Pictoris is a bright star visible
during the winter months," Kalas told SPACE.com.
Actually, Lagrange said the planet might not be visible with their
instruments currently, because of the inclination of the orbit and
how it is aligned. So from our perspective on Earth, the planet could
travel too close to its star to be visible.
The discovery will be detailed in a forthcoming letter to the editor
in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.