Smile! This Could Be The Lightest Alien Planet Ever Captured On Camera

by Elizabeth Howell on June 3, 2013

Planet HD95086 b is shown at lower left in this picture. Astronomers blocked out the light of the star (center) to image the exoplanet. The blue circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune in this star system. Credit: ESO/J. Rameau

Object HD95086 b is shown at lower left in this picture. Astronomers blocked out the light of the star HD 95086 (center) to image the possible exoplanet. The blue circle represents the equivalent orbit of Neptune in this star system. Credit: ESO/J. Rameau

We’ve found hundreds of planets outside the solar system, but taking a picture of one is still something quite special. The light of the parent star tends to greatly overwhelm the faint light of the alien planet. (So usually we learn about planets by tracking the effects each planet has on its star, like dimming light when it passes in front or making the star slightly wobble.)

This picture (above) shows HD95086 b, which astronomers believe is one of only about a dozen exoplanets ever imaged. It’s 300 light-years from Earth. The planet candidate is about four to five times the mass of Jupiter and orbiting a very young star that is probably only 10 million to 17 million years old. That’s a baby compared to our own solar system, estimated at 4.5 billion years old.

We still have a lot to learn about this object (and the observations from the Very Large Telescope will need to be confirmed independently), but so far astronomers say they figure that planet formed in the gas and dust surrounding star HD 95086. But the planet is actually very far away from the star now, about twice the distance as the Sun-Neptune orbital span in our own solar system.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO's Cerro Paranal observing site.  Located in the Atacama Desert of Chile, the site is over 2600 metres  above sea level, providing incredibly dry, dark viewing conditions. The  VLT is the worldâ??s most advanced optical  instrument, consisting         of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors 8.2-m in diameter and   four movable 1.8-m diameter Auxiliary        Telescopes. The telescopes  can work together, in groups of two or  three, to form a giant  interferometer, allowing astronomers to see  details up to 25 times  finer than with  the individual telescopes. Credit: European Southern Observatory

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at ESO’s Cerro Paranal observing site. Credit: European Southern Observatory

“Its current location raises questions about its formation process,” stated team member Anne-Marie Lagrange, who is with the Grenoble Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in France.

“It either grew by assembling the rocks that form the solid core and then slowly accumulated gas from the environment to form the heavy atmosphere, or started forming from a gaseous clump that arose from gravitational instabilities in the disc.

“Interactions between the planet and the disc itself,” she added, “or with other planets may have also moved the planet from where it was born.”

Astronomers estimate the planet candidate has a surface temperature of 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius), which could allow water vapor or methane to stick around in the atmosphere. It will take more VLT observations to figure this out, though.

The results from this study will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper is also available on prepublishing site Arxiv.

Source: European Southern Observatory

About 

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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