Culturing Science – biology as relevant to us earthly beings

BREAKING NEWS: Planet-like object spotted orbiting Sun-like object

For the first time, scientists have found another system like ours, with a planet-like object circling a star much like our own sun.

This was observed by a team of scientists from many institutions and countries (Japan, Germany, USA and Canada) from the 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which was first operated in 1999.  No, it is not named for the car company; subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades constellation.  It is one of the biggest telescopes in the world and positioned on the top of the dormant Mauna Kea volcano, elevating it and allowing its stellar (get it?) view.  It is owned and operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), who are currently working under a 10-year contract with Princeton University.

The star, named GJ 758, is about 50 light years away (300 trillion miles) and is a G9-type star, meaning that it’s a little cooler than our sun.   Its companion, GJ 758 B, is either a planet or a brown dwarf, which is essentially a failed star slowly burning out.  Either way, it’s a gas giant 10-40 times the size of Jupiter and as far from GJ 758 as Neptune is from our sun.  The scientists have also identified a potential second body, GJ 758 C.  If C is in fact a body and not just a blur on the image, scientists can conclude that both B and C are planets and not brown dwarfs since dwarfs could not exist so close to one another.

Imagine how difficult this was: to pick out a lil light in the midst of a huge, bright object.  This is the very reason that it is so rare to actually visualize planets.  Most planets which have been identified outside our solar system have been inferred from viewing the star, and not the planet itself.  To pick out the planet from this image, the scientists used a technique called angular differential imaging which essentially takes a time-series of images in an attempt to remove the halo and allow identification of any objects within it.  There have only been 10 planets directly viewed previously, marking this as a significant event.

Discovery of systems such as this can give us insight into how our own system formed — under what conditions can solar systems exist, and what makes ours different that it can support life?  The rate of exoplanet discovery is only increasing with these new technologies, so expect more from the Subaru telescope!

Written by Hanner

December 3, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Posted in News

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