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More Exoplanet Image Coolness November 21, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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A possible planet orbiting Beta Pic?

A possible planet orbiting Beta Pic?

Hot on the tail of the exciting exoplanet images produced with the Gemini, Keck and Hubble telescopes, a team of French scientists have spotted a possible planetary companion to Beta Pictoris. This star bears a remarkable resemblance to the parent stars of last week’s exoplanet hosts, HR8799 and Fomalhaut – it is a very young A-type star surrounded by a marked dusty debris disk. In fact, in 1984 Beta Pic was the first star to have its debris disk imaged optically, using the 2.5 m du Pont telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

If confirmed, and it sounds like the data were investigated very thoroughly to avoid any false alarms, the Beta Pic planet will be the first planet imaged at Solar System-like distances to its star. The observations show Beta Pic b lying around 8 AU from its host star – roughly the distance from the Sun to Saturn – with a mass of around 8 Jupiters.

This latest image was produced with the Very Large Telescope, also in Chile, using the Naos/Conica (NACO)instrument at infrared wavelengths (3.6 micron, the L-band).

The instrument is equipped with an adaptive optics system to remove the effects of atmospheric turbulence on the image – essential to achieve the levels of contrast required to spot a faint companion in the flood of bright starlight. The image of the actual disk was produced back in 1996 with the ESO 3.6 m telescope at La Silla, also with the aid of adaptive optics, and here superimposed on the recent NACO image.

This flurry of exoplanet images, if they are confirmed, is making me feel quite optimistic about the science we’ll be able to do with our next generation of telescopes! Interestingly, these observations were carried out back in 2003, and recently reprocessed to reveal the close companion by careful subtraction of the bright stellar image in the centre of the field.

The paper accompanying this image can be found here.

Image credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange

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