Extrasolar planets discovery, Christian Marois, Paul Kalas
This image, taken with the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard the Hubble Space Telescope,
shows the newly discovered planet,
Fomalhaut b, orbiting its parent star, Fomalhaut.

Discovery by Scientists Brings Distant Planets to Light

November 14, 2008 12:26 PM
by Josh Katz
Two groups of scientists have uncovered new planets in unprecedented ways, paving the way for a more in-depth search for life outside our solar system.

Planets Seen in New Way

Planetary discoveries by two different teams of scientists have broken new ground in astronomy. Scientists have located four new planets outside of our solar system, known as “extrasolar planets,” using only visible light, an unprecedented endeavor.

Normally, scientists must deduce the presence of extrasolar planets because their bright stars shield the planets from view. More than 300 extrasolar planets have been found since 1995 through indirect methods, such as by viewing the effects of their gravitational pull and analyzing their infrared radiation. But the recent discoveries by the team of Christian Marois of the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, British Columbia and that of Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley, came from visible light, The Washington Post reports.

Paul Kalas, a professor of astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, and his team discovered the Fomalhaut b planet, which orbits the Fomalhaut star. Fomalhaut b is about three times the size of Jupiter—the largest planet in our solar system—and is believed to be surrounded by rings. The distance between Fomalhaut b and its star is estimated to be about four times that between Neptune and the Sun, according to The Daily Telegraph. The star Fomalhaut is about 25 light years from the Earth, with a shorter lifespan than our Sun because it burns stronger. The star is believed to be about 200 million years old with a life span of another billion years, unlike the Sun, which is 4.5 billion years old and expected to live another 5 billion years.

“Fomalhaut b may actually show us what Jupiter and Saturn resembled when the solar system was about a hundred million years old,” Kalas said.
The scientists do not believe that Fomalhaut b is capable of hosting life because of its cold temperature, but the possibility remains that there are planets closer to the Fomalhaut star that are not yet visible. The more powerful James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope set to launch in 2013, may better illuminate that region.

Marois’ team obtained images of three planets orbiting the star HR 8799. The three planets are “roughly 10, 9 and 6 times the mass of Jupiter,” The New York Times reports. Kalas used the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys to capture Fomalhaut b, whereas Marois implemented the Gemini North and Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Marois. “Now that we know they are there, there is going to be an explosion,” the Times reports.

However, the scientific community must now vet the new discoveries. There is still the chance that the planets could be larger than believed, and could perhaps be classified as “brown dwarfs” instead, lacking the potential to become stars, but too large to be planets.

Reference: Astronomy


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