First photo of extrasolar planets revealed
Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have taken what they say are the first-ever direct images of planets outside of our solar system, including a visible-light snapshot of a single-planet system and an infrared picture of a multiple-planet system.
This image, taken with a camera aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, shows the newly discovered planet Fomalhaut b orbiting its parent star, Fomalhaut. (NASA / November 13, 2008)
The planet’s existence had been known since 2005 because its gravity had shaped the inner edge of a dust belt around its parent star, but it was only in May this year that researchers were able to pick it out in photographs taken by Hubble in 2004 and 2006.
“It’s a profound and overwhelming experience to lay eyes on a planet never before seen,” said Dr Paul Kalas, of the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States. “I nearly had a heart attack at the end of May when I confirmed that Fomalhaut b orbits its parent star.”
Earth-like worlds might also exist in the three-planet system, but if so they are too dim to photograph. The other newfound planet orbits a star called Fomalhaut, which is visible without the aid of a telescope. It is the 18th brightest star in the sky.
Finding the next Earth could require a leap beyond that, perhaps with a space mission such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder. Proposed by NASA several years ago, it would include a suit of space-based observatories outfitted to search for Earth-like planets in our local neighborhood of space.
That mission has been postponed because of budget problems.