Telescope takes first image of planet outside our solar system

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Saturday, April 2, 2005

Chile is home to tall mountains on South America's west coast

Space.com reported yesterday on a picture of a planet taken by the Very Large Telescope located in Chile. The European Southern Observatory's telescope, which was used to capture the picture, has made the first confirmed discovery of a planet orbiting another star.

Scientists have been trying to locate planets outside our own solar system for nearly 10 years. Inferences of nearly 150 planets in other solar systems have been observed so far by using instruments and measurements that only suggest the existence of another planet. Until now, no planet has been confirmed by the means of a photographed image. There was, months earlier, another team of scientists who took pictures of what might be another planet, but that image remains controversial because it shows what may be an even more distant object instead.

The research team that photographed the planet with its host star was led by Ralph Neuhaeuser of the Astrophysical Institute & University Observatory (AIU). "The detection of the faint object near the bright star is certain," he told Space.com on Friday.

The new image contains the star, GQ Lupi, with an orbiting planet. It is smaller than our sun, 70% the size, and is located 400 light-years away from our solar system. The planet is nearly twice the size of Jupiter. Unlike our sun which is 4.6 billion years old, the GQ Lupi star is approximately 1 million years old and is considered very young for a star. The planet orbiting GQ Lupi is three times further out than Neptune's orbit around our sun, and scientists estimate the orbiting period to be about 1,200 years. The planets wide orbiting distance from the GQ Lupi was an important element for enabling the photograph to be taken.

The planet, much like the star it orbits, is very hot — about 2,000 degrees Kelvin — so despite the detection of water in the planet's atmosphere, which at that temperature would make it gaseous, there is no expectation it might support life.

The discovery will be detailed in an upcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

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