Saturday, June 6, 2009

Historic first look at an alien world, 3.1 quadrillion miles away


Encircled in the picture above is the first planet from an alien solar system ever seen by humans. Located 500 light years from Earth, it's a planet eight times bigger than Jupiter. While it looks close to this sun-sized star in the picture, it's actually 11 times farther away from it than Neptune is from our sun.

Scientists have found numerous planets by detecting gravitational "wobble" in stars, however “this is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun,” said David Lafrenière, the lead author of a paper about the discovery. The University of Toronto astronomers who took this shot say the planet is probably orbiting this star, but add there's a slight chance it could be just hanging there in space. They're still not even sure if it's moving in sync with the star, which will take two more years of observation to determine.

This could change everything for scientists, who thought planets could only be formed by dust and matter close to a star. Equally interesting is how this picture was taken of an object 3.1 quadrillion miles away, using a an infrared adaptive optics system and the near-infrared imager on the Gemini North telescope atop Mona Kea in Hawaii.

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