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Astronomers may have image of extrasolar planet
SPACE.com ^ | May 10th 2004 | Robert Roy Britt

Posted on 05/10/2004 9:49:46 AM PDT by presidio9

In a preliminary analysis of new data, astronomers say they may have imaged a planet outside our solar system for the first time by using a tricky new method to ferret out dim objects from the light of a star.

The researchers are very cautious not to claim any discovery yet. The faint point of light, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, might instead be a background star or a very distant galaxy and requires follow-up observations to be confirmed.

Images

HOW IT'S DONE: A raw infrared image of a white dwarf star from Hubble shows a lot of noise, rather than isolating the star as a point of light.

After rotating Hubble and taking a second image, then processing the two photos to reduce noise, the star's influence is reduced, making it possible in theory to spot dim brown dwarfs and very massive planets.

This is one of the three new processed observations showing a point of light (in the upper right) that may be a planet or brown dwarf. An additional observation a few months from now is needed to show whether the object moves with the white dwarf and is therefore a companion, or if it is a background object moving at a different pace.

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The scientists say there is a high probability the object is a planet, however. If so, it would not resemble anything in our solar system.

The possible planet is huge, something less than 10 times as massive as Jupiter. It orbits a white dwarf star, which is dramatically different from our Sun. White dwarfs are burnt out corpses of formerly massive stars.

Three candidates

The object is one of three planet candidates found in the new study around white dwarf stars between 30 and 55 light-years away. The other two candidates appear to be even more massive, about 15-20 times as heavy as Jupiter. That would put them at the boundary between massive planets and failed stars known as brown dwarfs. Stellar pairs and even triplets are common, so astronomers would not be surprised to find a brown dwarf circling a white dwarf.

Each of the newly spotted objects and its corresponding white dwarf are separated by more than the distance from Neptune to the Sun.

"This is all dependent on seeing whether these are background objects or not," Penn State graduate student John Debes said in an interview. "If not, then there is a very strong chance that at least one is a planet."

A firm answer could come later this year with one more snapshot of each candidate that would show whether it moves across the sky with its presumed host star, instead of moving at a different pace that would reveal it as another star or galaxy that is in the more distant background.

Scientists have since 1995 been detecting planets around other stars. More than 120 are known. But most have been found indirectly by noting a gravitationally induced wobble in the host star. No extrasolar planets have been photographed directly, and many researchers have said the first picture would not likely come until next-generation space observatories are launched.

Several groups are working on creative ways to image extrasolar planets from current ground- or space-based telescopes, however.

The challenge is to spot a planet that by nature is small and dim compared to the overwhelming light of the star it orbits.

Tricky technique

Given the hurdle, Debes and his colleagues, Penn State professor Steinn Sigurdsson and NASA researcher Bruce Woodgate, surveyed seven white dwarf stars. These are more massive than Sun-like stars but many times dimmer. The three white dwarfs with candidate planets are between 1 billion and 3 billion years old.

The observations were made with Hubble's infrared NICMOS camera. The infrared light from the presumed planets is not reflected light from the host stars but instead represents heat emitted by the giant worlds.

The subtle detections involved using a trick developed by other researchers. After taking the first image of a white dwarf and its surroundings, Hubble was rolled slightly in space and a second image was made. By comparing the two images, scattered light created by instrument imperfections can be removed, Debes explained. That way the star is reduced more closely to a point-like source. Remaining nearby points of light then emerge as either dim orbiting companions or background objects.

An analysis of these faint sources then relies on other theorists' predictions of how much infrared radiation should come from planets of certain mass.

Debes presented the preliminary results at a meeting of astronomers here last week at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble for NASA.

Caution for now

"There are significant uncertainties" in the models relied upon to predict the planets' characteristics, Debes cautions. But additional telescope time will take all the mystery out of it. "The good news is we can take these [follow-up] observations in three to six months and know for sure."

One of the candidates is bright enough to be re-imaged from the ground. The other two would require additional investigation by Hubble. Debes is in the process of applying for the telescope time.

White dwarf stars do not present conditions favorable to hospitable worlds. But learning about planets around them should help researchers improve theories of how planets form, Debes said, by expanding or constraining the environmental conditions necessary to make planets of various kinds.

Planets around white dwarfs might sound odd, but other planets have been found in strange places.

Related work

Previous work led by Sigurdsson suggests a gas giant planet was apparently captured into an orbit around a white dwarf and a neutron star, in one of the most bizarre cosmic setups ever proposed. Sigurdsson said that planet is the oldest known, having formed 12.7 billion years ago when the universe was in its infancy. And a separate research group last year determined that three worlds roughly comparable to Earth in size orbit a rapidly spinning neutron star.

Debes and Sigurdsson also previously created a computer model to explain dust found around one white dwarf, using comets as the dust source. The comets, they theorized, where gravitationally flung toward the star by hypothetical planets, and the comets then broke up to create the dust. That idea motivated the current planet search.

The researchers would like to expand the planet search over the next several years to other white dwarf stars. The observations are only practical with Hubble, Debes said.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News; Miscellaneous; News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: space; xplanets

This is one of the three new processed observations showing a point of light (in the upper right) that may be a planet or brown dwarf. An additional observation a few months from now is needed to show whether the object moves with the white dwarf and is therefore a companion, or if it is a background object moving at a different pace.

1 posted on 05/10/2004 9:49:47 AM PDT by presidio9
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To: KevinDavis; RadioAstronomer
.
2 posted on 05/10/2004 10:02:09 AM PDT by farmfriend ( In Essentials, Unity...In Non-Essentials, Liberty...In All Things, Charity.)
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To: presidio9
Through careful and advanced image analysis, I have come to a conclusion:



GIANT SPACE ANTS!
3 posted on 05/10/2004 10:04:41 AM PDT by kenth
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To: kenth

"And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I'd like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves."

4 posted on 05/10/2004 10:09:43 AM PDT by presidio9 (Islam is as Islam does)
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To: presidio9
Clear as crystal! WTG guys! Now, if we can just get Hillary and the other of her clan to head back home, since we've positively identified their homestead, this country will be well on its way towards prosperity.
5 posted on 05/10/2004 10:16:02 AM PDT by FourtySeven (47)
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To: presidio9
More than 120 are known

There are billions, but none even come close to being earthlike.

6 posted on 05/10/2004 10:16:37 AM PDT by RightWhale (Destroy the dark; restore the light)
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To: presidio9
Here's a better picture of the White Dwarf:


7 posted on 05/10/2004 10:21:40 AM PDT by robertpaulsen
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To: presidio9
I hope they name the planet "Plexus" -
"Class, this is the extrasolar Plexus..."
8 posted on 05/10/2004 10:24:57 AM PDT by talleyman (Moose lips sink ships.)
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To: Mr. Mojo
You might want to see this. It's pretty kewl. ;-)
9 posted on 05/10/2004 10:29:27 AM PDT by NRA2BFree (I am a nobody, and nobody is perfect; therefore, I am perfect.)
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later
10 posted on 05/10/2004 10:45:33 AM PDT by Rocket1968 (Democrats will crash and burn in 2004.)
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To: kenth
"Let me be the first to welcome our new insect overlords."

NFP

11 posted on 05/10/2004 11:02:20 AM PDT by Notforprophet ("You can have a nanny state if you prefer. But not for long." - Mark Steyn)
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To: kenth
GIANT SPACE ANTS!

Just don't let them get in to the sugar.

12 posted on 05/10/2004 12:54:06 PM PDT by yankeedame ("Born with the gift of laughter & a sense that the world was mad.")
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To: kenth
ROFL - I was lookin at it thinking they ran into a bug at high speed. Kinda like the opening of MIB lol
13 posted on 05/10/2004 12:57:07 PM PDT by Havoc ("The line must be drawn here. This far and no further!")
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To: kenth
I might add that it doesn't look too dissimilar from what One sees from the inside of a motorcycle helmet in summer and at speed lol
14 posted on 05/10/2004 1:10:13 PM PDT by Havoc ("The line must be drawn here. This far and no further!")
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To: robertpaulsen
I was thinkin' Mickey Rooney.
15 posted on 05/10/2004 1:23:59 PM PDT by Lonesome in Massachussets (Uday and Qusay are ead-day)
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To: kenth
My more complete analysis, based on your advanced image enhancement, reveals that you missed a limb of the space creature which appears, dimly but clearly, in the 10 o'clock position. Carefully counting the revised number of limbs, I arrive at a total of eight which indicates, not an ant, but a GIANT SPACE SPIDER!
In fact, the white hazy area in the night skies which generations of astronomers has taken to be the, "milky way" is in fact THE GIANT SPACE SPIDERS WEB, which is slowly expanding to ensnare our home world. My calculations indicate that our total encirclement will be completed and our doom assured by 12:01 AM, EST on April 1st, 2005.
Resistance is futile!
16 posted on 05/10/2004 1:43:38 PM PDT by finnigan2 (My more advanced)
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To: RadioAstronomer; Physicist; ThinkPlease; edwin hubble; PatrickHenry
first the extra-solar planet deniers (ESPD) screamed: "there's no evidence!!!", then astronomers found spectroscopic evidence of wobbling in nearby stars consistent with planet-sized masses orbiting them, so the ESPD's then screamed: "Yeah, well nobody has ever seen one....", and now it appears, pending further verification, that astronomers have directly imaged an extra-solar planet.

So what will the ESPD's next line of defense/goalpost moving be? "Well, no one has ever tasted one....."?

17 posted on 05/10/2004 1:59:09 PM PDT by longshadow
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To: longshadow
They'll say, "Not a planet. This is a brown dwarf star." They'll call Jupiter a dwarf star if they have to, just as surely as the next guy--or quite likely the same guy--will call homo erectus an ape to rescue his worldview.
18 posted on 05/10/2004 2:03:41 PM PDT by Physicist
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To: Physicist
They'll say, "Not a planet. This is a brown dwarf star." They'll call Jupiter a dwarf star if they have to, just as surely as the next guy--or quite likely the same guy--will call homo erectus an ape to rescue his worldview.

As usual, your analysis is on the money. But at some point it becomes pernicious to call Jupiter-sized objects "brown dwarfs," as they are something like 80 times less massive than the minimum mass it takes to sustain nuclear fusion in the core, which is the signature characteristic that makes a "star" a "star." Not that that will stop them from trying.....

19 posted on 05/10/2004 2:12:43 PM PDT by longshadow
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To: longshadow; Physicist
The Earth is not rotating...nor is it going around the sun..
20 posted on 05/10/2004 2:26:57 PM PDT by PatrickHenry (Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.)
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To: PatrickHenry
What, you ain't gonna ping the list? I use the crevo_list for updating the TUCvER. Right now I've got something like 1650 links. I'm going to have to figure some way to organize them before I post them.
21 posted on 05/10/2004 2:42:53 PM PDT by Junior (Sodomy non sapiens)
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To: Physicist
It's not a brown dwarf star. THIS is a brown dwarf star:


22 posted on 05/10/2004 3:55:50 PM PDT by RightWingAtheist
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To: Junior
This thread isn't really for my ping list. But it's gonna be good to see another update.
23 posted on 05/10/2004 4:10:10 PM PDT by PatrickHenry (Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.)
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