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Hubble Telescope Sends Postcards From Extrasolar Planets

By Irene Collins

November 13th 2008

Once again, Earth science confirms what Urantia Book students have always known - that Urantia is not alone in the universe. If you click on "external source," you can read the entire article, which also contains numerous other links to this exciting discovery.

After years of effort on improved observational techniques and better data analysis, one set of images shows three giant planets orbiting a star named HR8799 in the constellation Pegasus, about 130 light-years away from the Earth. A light-year is the distance light travels in a year, or 6 trillion miles. The planets are several times the mass of Jupiter.

There are two teams of astronomers that have taken the first pictures in history of planets orbiting stars other than our sun. A Berkeley team used the Hubble telescope to take a picture of Fomalhaut b, a newly found exoplanet. Another second team in Hawaii snapped photos of three other planets orbiting a young star.

The first team, led by Berkeley researchers, used the Hubble Space Telescope. Paul Kalas, the lead astronomer for the Berkeley team, said he "nearly had a heart attack" when he found the new planet, which he calls Fomalhaut b. The team estimates that the planet is 11bn miles away from its star, about as massive as Jupiter and completes an orbit in about 870 years. It may also have a ring around it. According to a theoretical model that accounts for the light coming from the planets, they range in size from five to 13 times the mass of Jupiter and are probably only about 60 million years old.

This large debris disk is similar to the Kuiper Belt, which encircles the solar system and contains a range of icy bodies from dust grains to objects the size of dwarf planets, such as Pluto. Future observations will attempt to see the planet in infrared light and will look for evidence of water vapor clouds in the atmosphere. This would yield clues to the evolution of a comparatively newborn 100-million-year-old planet.

The four photographed exoplanets are discussed in two research papers published online Thursday by the journal Science.

Until now, scientists have inferred the presence of planets mainly by detecting an unseen world's gravitational tug on its host star or waiting for the planet to transit in front of its star and then detecting a dip in the star's light. 300 extrasolar planets have been identified in this way. But advances in optics and image processing have allowed astronomers to effectively subtract the bright light from stars, leaving behind light from the planets. That light can either come in the infrared, caused by the planets' heat, or be reflected starlight.

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