Last week NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced that the Hubble Space Telescope the first visible-light picture of a planet outside our solar system. Karl Stapelfeldt, one of the co-authors for the Hubble Telescope Planet Detection program at JPL/Caltech and a La Crescenta resident, said that the detection of planets such as the one photographed is very difficult.
“Everyone would like to see an image but it is very hard to see,” Stapelfeldt said. “The planet is very faint and very bright.”
He explained planets that rotate around a star, similar to the planets in our solar system, are difficult to see because they are so far away they look like a faint light. Also, the star they are circling is so hot the images of the planet blur into the glare of the star. The planet that was photographed, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the star Fomalhaut, which is located in the constellation Piscis Australis.
The planet is 25 times farther from its star than Jupiter is from our sun, Stapelfeldt said.
The fact that the planet was separated from its star and was bright was unusual. The planet is estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter’s mass.
It has been a candidate for planet hunting since as NASA’s Infrared Astronomy Satellite discovered excess of dust around the star in the early 1980s. In 2004, the high-resolution camera on the Hubble produced an image of the region around Fomalhaut. It showed a ring of protoplanetary debris about 21.5 billion miles across and had a sharp inner edge.
Stapelfeldt said he hoped a picture would bring more awareness and excitement to the search for other planets. Before, the search for planets was a mathematical equation. But a picture can give a more tangible feel to the discovery.
“A picture communicates to everybody,” he said. “A picture is something we can all relate to. Now we can see the dot, and this dot moved over a couple of years and moved in an orbital path.”
Astronomy is about science and imagination, Stapelfeldt said. This planet was found because scientists had a hunch.
“Everybody who is a scientist has to have the ability to make a hunch,” he said, adding that if a person doesn’t have the ability to image “what if” they will “be trapped in what is known.”
Stapelfeldt said he hoped this picture and discovery will open the possibilities to more exploration sooner rather than later, with new telescopes missions like the Hubble launched.
The exploration of our solar system and beyond is important step to understanding our own history.
“It is the way to tie our solar system to our neighbors,” he said. “Can we find an Earthlike planet, then measure if it has water or methane in its atmosphere?”
Scientists may find planets that are completely different than what we have seen.
“There are possible environments we haven’t discovered yet,” Stapelfeldt said.