First photo of a planet that orbits another sun

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Saturday, April 30, 2005

File image of the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in June 2001. (This is not the observatory in Chile where the planet was photographed.)

Scientists confirmed today for the first time ever, that astronomers photographed a planet orbiting a sun other than our own. Photographs were taken late last year by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, but it has taken since then to confirm that the body is indeed a planet — five times the size of Jupiter, the largest planet that orbits our own sun.

Extra-solar planets such as this have been detected before, but never by direct observation — their presence has always been inferred from aberrant behaviour of the star they circulate around.

"Among the most essential quests of modern astronomers, taking direct images of planets outside of our solar system is certainly up there among chart-toppers," says the ESO, in a press release given to verify the status of the object.

The newly imaged planet orbits a brown dwarf star known to scientists as 2M1207, at a distance that is nearly twice as far as that of Neptune from our own sun — making the planet much too cold for lifeforms such as those on Earth. Detection of Earth-like planets is still years away, according to the ESO, because they are too faint for current equipment to detect.

The scientists say that the planet presents a valuable opportunity nonetheless, as it is much younger than those in our own system, at only "a few tens of millions of years old".

"Moreover, as the first tens of millions of years are considered to have been a critical period in the formation of Earth and of our own solar system, the study of nearby young planetary systems provides astronomers with invaluable insight on our own origins."

Suns are understood to form when matter collapses strongly under its own gravity, while planets form later by accretion, in matter orbiting a sun.

Photographs of what was thought to be an extra-solar planet were announced earlier this month. However scientists now state that the size of that planet might be much larger than originally announced, thus allowing a chance that the object might instead be a small star.

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