We’ve found hundreds of planets outside the solar system, but taking a picture of one is still something quite special.
The light of the parent star tends to greatly overwhelm the faint light of the alien planet. (So usually we learn about planets by tracking the effects each planet has on its star, like dimming light when it passes in front or making the star slightly wobble.)
This picture (above) shows HD95086 b, which astronomers believe is one of only about a dozen exoplanets ever imaged. It’s 300 light-years from Earth. The planet candidate is about four to five times the mass of Jupiter and orbiting a very young star that is probably only 10 million to 17 million years old. That’s a baby compared to our own solar system, estimated at 4.5 billion years old.
We still have a lot to learn about this object (and the observations from the Very Large Telescope will need to be confirmed independently), but so far astronomers say they figure that planet formed in the gas and dust surrounding star HD 95086. But the planet is actually very far away from the star now, about twice the distance as the Sun-Neptune orbital span in our own solar system.
“Its current location raises questions about its formation process,” stated team member Anne-Marie Lagrange, who is with the Grenoble Institute of Planetology and Astrophysics in France.
“It either grew by assembling the rocks that form the solid core and then slowly accumulated gas from the environment to form the heavy atmosphere, or started forming from a gaseous clump that arose from gravitational instabilities in the disc.
“Interactions between the planet and the disc itself,” she added, “or with other planets may have also moved the planet from where it was born.”
Astronomers estimate the planet candidate has a surface temperature of 1,292 degrees Fahrenheit (700 degrees Celsius), which could allow water vapor or methane to stick around in the atmosphere. It will take more VLT observations to figure this out, though.
The results from this study will be published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The paper is also available on prepublishing site Arxiv.
Source: European Southern Observatory