Saturday, June 6, 2009

Scientists directly observe three distant planets, notice similarities to our solar system

Two different teams of scientists have been able to directly observe distant planets — something that's never been done before. Christian Marois, the leader of a team at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics in Victoria, British Columbia tracked three planets circling a star in the Pegasus system known as HR 8799, a whopping 130 light years away. The second team, led by Paul Kalas of UC Berkeley, spotted a planet orbiting Fomalhaut (pictured above — Eye of Sauron, anyone?), a star 25 light years from Earth.

Claims of "directly" observing planets have been made before, and are usually quickly argued down. Both of these sightings, however, show orbital trajectories mapped out over several photographs that took years to collect. What's more, the teams think the distant stars share similarities with ours when it comes to orbiting bodies. The three around HR 8799 are all several times the size of Jupiter, though mirror the makeup of our solar system, with larger planets forming the majority of the outer orbiting belt.

That begs the question: Are there smaller planets that we can't see orbiting the star more closely? There's a chance there is, though both stars are far younger than our own so who knows if any of the planets support life.

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