Fomalhaut and orbiting planet.  Credit: NASA, ESA and P. Kalas (University of California, Berkeley, USA)

Hubble Takes First Visible Light Image of Extrasolar Planet

13 Nov , 2008 by

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Persistence has paid off for astronomer Paul Kalas. After eight years and taking repeated photographs with the Hubble Space Telescope of a nearby star, he finally has what he and many astronomers have been striving for: the first visible-light snapshot of a planet outside our solar system. This coincides with the announcement of the first time astronomers have taken pictures of another multi-planet solar system, using the Gemini and Keck Telescopes. Kalas has been studying the star Fomalhaut, located about 25 light years from Earth, for several years. He knew the planet was there, because its perturbations were evident in the ring of gas and dust surrounding the star. The planet is probably close to the mass of Jupiter, and it orbits Fomalhaut at a distance about four times that between Neptune and the sun. Formally known as Fomalhaut b, the planet could have a ring system about the dimension of Jupiter’s early rings, before the dust and debris coalesced into the four Galilean moons. Learn more in the video below…

The planet’s existence was suspected in 2005, when images Kalas took with the Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys showed a sharply defined inner edge to the dust belt around Fomalhaut, in the southern constellation Piscus Austrinus. The sharp edge and off-center belt suggested to Kalas that a planet in an elliptical orbit around the star was shaping the inner edge of the belt, much like Saturn’s moons groom the edges of its rings.

“The gravity of Fomalhaut b is the key reason that the vast dust belt surrounding Fomalhaut is cleanly sculpted into a ring and offset from the star,” Kalas said. “We predicted this in 2005, and now we have the direct proof.”

Check out this video from ESA about the discovery:

“It will be hard to argue that a Jupiter-mass object orbiting an A star like Fomalhaut is anything other than a planet,” said coauthor James R. Graham, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley. “That doesn’t mean it’s exactly what we expected when we went hunting for planets in this system.”

“Every planet has a chaotic zone, which is basically a swath of space that encloses the planet’s orbit and from which the planet ejects all particles,” said Eugene Chiang, a UC Berkeley associate professor of astronomy and of earth and planetary science, and first author of the ApJ paper. “This zone increases with the mass of the planet, so, given the size of the chaotic zone around Fomalhaut b, we can estimate that its likely mass is in the vicinity of one Jupiter mass.”

Fomalhaut annotated.  Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

Fomalhaut annotated. Credit: Credit: NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)


Kalas now has two photographs of the planet, taken in 2004 and 2006, which show that its movement over a 21-month period exactly fits what would be expected from a planet orbiting Fomalhaut every 872 years at a distance of 119 astronomical units, or 11 billion miles. One astronomical unit (AU) is the average distance between the Earth and the sun, or 93 million miles.

“I nearly had a heart attack at the end of May when I confirmed that Fomalhaut b orbits its parent star,” Kalas said. “It’s a profound and overwhelming experience to lay eyes on a planet never before seen.”

Sources: EurekAlert, ESA’s Space Telescope site


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Claytronic
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Claytronic
November 13, 2008 2:01 PM

Congratulations, Kalas. This is the coolest thing I’ve seen all month maybe all year.

yanluz86
Member
November 13, 2008 2:28 PM

Simply amazing!

It will be nice if we can start getting more of these now that we’ve been able to get the 1st one.

Its only the beginning!

fsm
Guest
fsm
November 13, 2008 2:30 PM

So, do they have any moons then? smile

vino
Member
vino
November 13, 2008 2:39 PM

Amazing work! Start of another era in planetary science!!!
Congrats to the team!!

Erik J
Guest
Erik J
November 13, 2008 2:52 PM

That’s the stuff right there. Awesome!

uncledan
Member
uncledan
November 13, 2008 3:44 PM

Isn’t this discovery one of the holy grails of astronomy?

BHC
Guest
November 13, 2008 4:49 PM

question, photographs are from 2004 and 2006, but only now being revealed, in 2008? what have they been doing the past 2 years?

Pegster
Member
Pegster
November 13, 2008 5:30 PM

Bureaucracy?

Don Alexander
Member
Don Alexander
November 13, 2008 5:36 PM

Why is this in ApJ and not Nature??

ed
Guest
ed
November 13, 2008 8:41 PM
This will open a new kind of era for astronomy. It will eventually get a nobel prize fure sure. Time will tell me right or wrong. But the impact of directly detecting an extrasolar planet rather than using indirect means such as spectral analysis of stars etc. is huge, Put it this way. For skepticals, Now you know that for sure, No question added that there are extrasolar planet. So this closes that chapter and open a new one. I dont know why the author publish this in ApJ. Maybe because of lack of confidence and the need to get results published. but this is by far one of the discoveries of this century putting it up there… Read more »
ccg
Guest
ccg
November 13, 2008 10:24 PM

Wonderful !

This picture is absolutely fantastic

@ fsm : grin

( and since this is my first post : thanks Universe Today ! you guys are the best )

George
Member
George
November 13, 2008 11:19 PM

Super Duper!!! Wow!! This is huge. Mankind has never imaged another planet outside the solar system, and how long have we been on this planet?

This is as big as when William Herschel shooked the world with his discovery of a planet when no other planet had ever been discovered since the obvious ones.

In honor of Herschel, I have an idea for a name for one of the planets.

Assi
Guest
November 14, 2008 3:28 AM

Good job!

maudyfish
Guest
maudyfish
November 14, 2008 8:57 AM

Hey, Ed, those are awesome pics but that system was seen face on. I wonder if that can be done for all systems?
And what about the two precious star systems that were found in the same manner. For example 1RXS J160929.1-219524 and 2M1207b. Seems that these pics are not “the first” as stated. You need to read the comments on Scientific America that appeared on Daily Astronomy 11-13.

John in Missouri
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John in Missouri
November 14, 2008 9:28 AM

This is exciting beyond expression. When I first saw that picture, it took my breath away. The cosmos is truly awesome!

Yorick
Guest
Yorick
November 14, 2008 9:47 AM

“question, photographs are from 2004 and 2006, but only now being revealed, in 2008? what have they been doing the past 2 years?”

And announced the same day the European were announcing their discovery, what a coincidence! wink
It’s always funny how European and American teams are trying to still each other’s thunder whenever they learn an imminent discovery from the other side of the Atlantic.

Spoodle58
Member
November 14, 2008 10:55 AM

Most work in acquiring data etc takes time, years for this sort of thing, its better to announce it when your proof is conclusive and undeniable.

Still though I would have loved to see or hear about this back in 2004, how do you keep this stuff to yourself. We should start socializing with high profile astronomers, get them drunk and get them tell us all about the new stuff there working on. Nancy would you be interested in this new task? … smile

Anyway, it is a great time to be alive guys, and to witness stuff like this

marcellus
Guest
marcellus
November 14, 2008 7:09 PM

I love Fomalhaut. When I see it, it reminds me that autumn, and darker skies are near at hand. It is the only bright becon of light in the watery constellations.

This type of story would have been unthinkable in the 1960’s. Just imagine how far we have come since those days.

This is an inspiration to our hopes that humankind will someday reach the stars.

Jon Hanford
Member
Jon Hanford
November 14, 2008 1:47 PM
I think in the short term, astronomers would be most interested in obtaining spectra, polarization data, magnitudes (and any variations) and alternative methods for deducing these new planet’s mass, orbital period, etc. Spectra alone of these new planetary systems, while difficult to obtain, would contain a wealth of info on the physical makeup and numerous other properties of these worlds impossible to obtain with current spectroscopic line-shifting detections of planets and be a big improvement compared to spectra deduced from planetary-transiting systems. Add to that just the aesthetic value of actually seeing a planet orbiting another star…what a way to stir up childrens (and adults) imaginations. These new direct observations were certainly predicted to occur well within our… Read more »
ed
Guest
ed
November 15, 2008 6:51 PM

and to think people wanted to take hubble out of service couple of years ago!

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