astronomy: photo may show another world

Astronomers from Pennsylvania State University may have taken the first photo of a planet circling a distant star. Though many planets outside our solar system have already been discovered, this would be the first time another world has ever been photographed directly. The difficulty is that the much brighter light of host stars usually obscures fainter objects, such as planets. So, using the Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared camera, the researchers looked for planets circling white dwarfs, dimmer stars near the end of their lives. They hope that the small blob (white dot at upper right) circling the star in the photo they’ve taken is a planet, and not just a background object in the same field of view. However, the researchers won’t be able to confirm their discovery until more observations are done over the next six months. If it is a planet, the object is 5- to 10-times the mass of Jupiter, and orbits a star about 100 light years away. Nature News Service reports that the astronomers won’t reveal the star’s precise location because they fear other researchers may scoop their results.

This news brief appeared in the Discoveries column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 5/18/2004.
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