An alien planet – for your eyes only

A spectacular observatory which features in the latest James Bond movie has photographed a giant alien planet orbiting a star outside our own solar system.

With the glare of the star removed, the new planet is visible in the disk of dust around Beta Pictoris. Image credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al.

The new world, close to a baby star just 70 light-years away, was spotted using Europe’s Very Large Telescope high in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

It is around eight times bigger than Jupiter, the largest planet in our own solar system, and around eight times further away from its home star as the Earth is from the sun.

The observatory, built in the driest place on Earth, features in dramatic scenes in Bond’s latest movie outing Quantum Of Solace as a hide-out for villain Dominic Greene.

The landscape resembles Mars and the high altitude makes it difficult for visitors to breathe. But the thin atmosphere also made it the perfect place for such a discovery.

French astronomers took pictures in infrared light of a dusty disk surrounding the star, Beta Pictoris, which is only 12 million years old. By comparison, the sun’s age is around 4 billion years, making it middle-aged.

The dust is thought to be a newly forming solar system around the star, in the southern constellation of Pictor, the Painter.

By using a special technique called adaptive optics to counter distortion from turbulence in our own atmosphere, the French team recorded a point of light close to the star. They also had to mask the overpoweringly bright light from the star itself.

The team say they need to make further observations to be completely sure that the object is not another star in the same line of sight. But no such star has been logged by the Hubble space telescope and the object’s position and characteristics fit those of a planet.

When confirmed, this candidate companion – labelled Beta Pictoris b – will be the closest planet from its star ever imaged. News of the achievement, in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, come just a week after reports of two separate successes of picturing planets around two other stars.

The latest discovery team’s leader Anne-Marie Lagrange said: “Our observations point to the presence of a giant planet, about eight times as massive as Jupiter and at about the distance of Saturn in our solar system.”

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