Astronomers believe they have taken the first amazing photo of a planet around another star like the Sun. The alien world shows up as a tiny orange disk in the image captured by Canadian scientists with a giant telescope in Hawaii.
Previous pictures of so-called extrasolar planets orbiting other stars have been painted by artists.
The new world was spotted 500 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius, the scorpion. Astronomers were puzzled by its distance from its parent star which is 330 times further than we are from the sun.
But they carried out detective work with other techniques to confirm that the planet and the star lie at roughly the same distance from us and so are probably connected.
Before now, the only planet-like bodies imaged outside the solar system have been floating freely or been circling brown dwarfs, which are thought to be stars that failed to ignite.
Special equipment fitted to the Gemini North Telescope, called adaptive optics, was used to remove distortions caused by turbulence in the atmosphere that would have hidden the planet from view.
That gave the astronomers a clear image of a world which would otherwise have been invisible because of the star’s twinkling. It is thought to be about eight times the mass, or size, of Jupiter, biggest planet in our own solar system.
The star has the catchy name of 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and lies in a cluster of relatively young stars called the Upper Scorpius association.
“This is the first time we have directly seen a planetary mass object in a likely orbit around a star like our Sun,” said David Lafrenicre, lead author of a paper submitted to the Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Colleague Ray Jayawardhana said: “This discovery is yet another reminder of the truly remarkable diversity of worlds out there.”
More than 300 extrasolar planets have been found since the first was detected in the early 1990s. Last year one was discovered in a star’s so-called habitable region, or Goldilocks zone, raising the possibility that it could be home to life.
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