Skip to comments.EXCLUSIVE: First Confirmed Picture of a Planet Beyond the Solar System
Posted on 04/01/2005 11:35:44 AM PST by conservativecorner
After a few close calls, astronomers have finally obtained the first photograph of a planet beyond our solar system, SPACE.com has learned.
And this time they're sure.
The planet is thought to be one to two times as massive as Jupiter. It orbits a star similar to a young version of our Sun.
The star, GQ Lupi, has been observed by a team of European astronomers since 1999. They have made three images using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The Hubble Space Telescope and the Japanese Subaru Telescope each contributed an image, too.
The work was led by Ralph Neuhaeuser of the Astrophysical Institute & University Observatory (AIU).
"The detection of the faint object near the bright star is certain," Neuhaeuser told SPACE.com on Friday.
The system is young, so the planet is rather warm, like a bun fresh out of the oven. That warmth made it comparatively easier to see in the glare of its host star compared with more mature planets. Also, the planet is very far from the star -- about 100 times the distance between Earth and the Sun, another factor in helping to separate the light between the two objects.
The discovery will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. Neuhaeuser's co-authors include Ph.D. student Markus Mugrauer, who performed the observations, and Guenther Wuchterl.
"This is the first directly imaged and confirmed companion to a Sun-like star, and as such marks the dawn of a new era in planet detection," said Ray Jayawardhana, a University of Toronto researcher who was not involved in the discovery but has seen the scientific paper.
Other recent milestones
Over the past decade, astronomers have found about 150 extrasolar planets. The vast majority have only been detected indirectly, by noting wobbles that the planets induce in their stars.
Earlier this month, astronomers announced the detection of a planet's infrared light using the Spitzer Space Telescope. But that observation did not involve a photograph. Instead, the system's total light was seen to drop when the planet was eclipsed by the star.
Late last year, another European team announced what might have been the first photograph of an extrasolar planet. That planet candidate has yet to be confirmed, however, because it's not yet clear whether it is orbiting the star or if it might be an object in the distant background. And even if it is a planet, it is an unusually large one -- several times the mass of Jupiter -- and it orbits a failed star known as a brown dwarf.
The object around GQ Lupi is clearly linked to the star gravitationally.
"The separation between star and planet has not changed from 1999 to 2004, which means that they move together on the sky," Neuhaeuser said. "In our case, we do have a normal plain image showing the bright star and the faint planet a little bit west of the star. The planet is only 156 times fainter than the star, because the planet is still very young and hence still forming, still contracting."
This object "appears to pass" the observational tests "for being a planetary mass companion to its parent star," Jayawardhana said.
Familiar yet different
The picture of GQ Lupi and its planet is exciting to astronomers because the system resembles in some respects our own solar system in its formation years.
The planet is about 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (2000 Kelvin) -- not the sort of place that would be expected to support life. Neuhaeuser's team has also detected water in the planet's atmosphere. The world is expected to be gaseous, like Jupiter. It is about twice the diameter of Jupiter. The mass estimate -- one to two times that of Jupiter -- is "somewhat uncertain," Neuhaeuser said.
The planet is three times farther from GQ Lupi than Neptune is from our Sun. "We should expect that the planet orbits around the star, but at its large separation one orbital period [a year] is roughly 1,200 years, so that orbital motion is not yet detected."
It's not known why it is so far out.
"It is unlikely, but not impossible, that the planet formed at that large separation, because circumstellar disks around other stars often are that large or even larger," Neuhaeuser said.
Or perhaps the planet had a close brush with another developing world. The interaction could have thrown the newly discovered planet outward while tossing the other one, which has not been detected, in toward the star. It's also possible the newfound planet has a highly elliptical orbit and is currently near its outer bounds.
The star GQ Lupi is part of a star-forming region about 400 light-years away. At 70 percent the mass of the Sun, it is "quite similar to our Sun," Neuhaeuser said. But GQ Lupi is only about 1 million years old. The Sun is middle-aged, at 4.6 billion years old.
"What's most exciting about this discovery is that it raises a plethora of new questions regarding the origin of a planet so far out from its parent star," Jayawardhana, who is an expert on the disks around young stars from which planets form, said in a email interview.
Jayawardhana wonders whether it formed in a protoplanetary disk much closer in, roughly where Jupiter is in our solar system, and then get flung out. Or if it was born almost at the same time as its star, fragmenting out of a contracting protostellar cloud.
"One way or another, this object must have formed pretty quickly" given the star's age, he said.
Knots of gas and dust have been detected around other young stars in setups that astronomers believe are solar systems in the making. Theorists believe our solar system formed when the Sun's leftovers developed into a thin disk of orbiting material. Rocky planets like Earth formed when chunks stuck together. Astronomers do not agree, however, how gas giants are born.
Alan Boss, a planet formation theorist at Carnegie Institution of Washington, called the image "really exciting." But he said there is "one little nagging doubt" in that the object's mass is only an estimate.
Weighing it precisely would involve noting the gravitational wobble the apparent planet induces on the star, but this object is too far from the star to produce a meaningful wobble. Yet even if the object is four times the mass of Jupiter it would still be considered a planet, Boss said in a telephone interview.
"I think there's a really good chance that this is an historic photo," Boss said.
Wow I wonder if there are any rocky planets orbiting closer in.
How close is it to Uranus? *snicker, snicker*
At this point I'd like to brag I'm #41 on the FReeper SETI list.
Man I've been playing with Trolls too much.
Someday all our science fiction stories are going to look so quaint and humble.
Is that the planet with hair around it?
Is it just light defraction,because of the distance, or does it look like that planet is in the sun's corona?
I know it's close to a black hole..
In all seriousness, this is pretty cool!
Before anyone corrects me, yes, I do know it's General O'Neil
Watch too much SG1??
I'm shocked it took 3 posts.
I was slow today. :o)
The planet is about 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit..
Mmmmm sounds yummy. Refractory dinner rolls.
What's with the red ring around Uranus?
I love your tagline!!
That could be said of virtually any liberal.
He had Mexican food.
Did you notice that 'b' moon near the planet?
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Thats no planet. Its a
If it's three times further out than Neptune is from our star, why does it look so close? Is it due to the length of time the exposure took (making the star appear much larger than it is?)
TWO L's! (Three fingers)
Close enough to keep the Klingons off of it.
Wow that picture sure is convincing!~}
Probably a narrow angle between the lines of sight of the two bodies, combined with a hot gas planet with a lot of emissivity.
Nah. The Klingons are already on Uranus! PrepH torpedoes ready to fire Kepten!
I donno. It's just another extra-solar planet. Other than the pic, there's not much new here.
Beam Me Up, Scotty!
"How close is it to Uranus?"
I can't hear anybody say Uranaus any more without laughing. I'm not laughing at the word anymore, I'm laughing at the fact that it has become the punch line of every "space/planet" joke being made. I just can't help it.
I was with some co-workers a few weeks ago and this woman, thinking she's being half cute and half profound, says, "So, if women are from Venus and men are from Mars, where do gay people come from?"
Of course I immediately said "Uranus!" Beer was spewed everywhere.
Great downloads. Thanks!
I knew these beasties at Paranal were going to be real barnburners when they get hooked up. It's big, it's hairy and will out-do Hubble when it starts cranking out the images. The VLT has a combined light-collecting power equivalent to that of a 16-meter (630-inch) telescope.
I think it is a brown dwarf star. I just don't see how they can tell the difference between that and heat from condensation pressure from an object glowing on its own rather than from reflected light.
If my math is correct, that planet is further from its sun than pluto is from the sun... and if that's visible, chances are there may be class M planets in that system not visible to our current imaging capabilities.....
Mr. and Mrs. Cochrane need to get busy to have Zephram get born....
now we need to see if there's an arid planet w/ N02 atmosphere around Epsilon Eridani (real Trekkies know which planet I'm speaking of, so I'll let them figure it out)...
Very cool! :)
You and me both. :-)
Has there been discovered any planet outside of our solar system that is not like Jupiter (i.e., not a failed star or brown dwarf)? I think it's great that they have discovered these objects but to me this discovery is just a binary system where one of the "stars" is too small to burn as a star. It would be really interesting if they found a planet other than a gas giant, but our technology might not currently be able to detect anything smaller than Jupiter.
I propose that we call this planet....Clintonia...in honor of his majesty...Omar Bill Clinton.
Gays: Uranus is just a Black Hole where ju put Jupiter.
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