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Amazing, smallest yet alien planet photographed

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
June 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Astronomers in South America have imaged an alien planet orbiting just 300 light years from Earth. Although other exoplanets have been imaged before, this is the smallest one yet.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A new image released by the European Southern Observatory shows a bright blue dot-- the reflection of light off the gaseous atmosphere of a planet.

The planet is the smallest one yet imaged and is only about four or five times more massive than Jupiter.

Astronomers have already become good at detecting planets orbiting distant stars. They have found that planets are quite common and are probably a natural byproduct of star formation. In other words, most stars probably have planets.

The direct imaging of smaller and smaller planets may give astronomers the ability to see with their own eyes, earthlike planets as they orbit distant stars.

Of course, those images won't provide much photographic detail but rather they will simply show planets as points of light. Astronomers can filter that light to determine the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere.

Astronomers will be looking for the telltale chemical signatures of life on other planets once this technique is perfected.

For now, astronomers are able to detect very large gas giants around stars by blocking out the light from parent stars. The method is similar to covering your eyes with your hand on a sunny day so you might see distant detail.

In addition to the planet's sheer size, it is also helpful that it orbits about 56 astronomical units from its star, which is 56 times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun or about twice the distance from the Sun and Neptune.

The image shows a planet orbiting the star HD 95086, a star of only 10 to 17 million years old. This suggests to astronomers that planet formation can occur early and quickly in the life of a star.

Astronomers want to study the planet and its parent star further to determine if the planet formed at that great distance, or if it was moved there by interactions with other gravitational influences.

The finding is due to be published in an upcoming issue of Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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