What seems to be yet another extrasolar planet, this time around Beta Pictoris at an orbit similar to Saturn's

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some pretty large telescopes.

Another day, another extrasolar planet. This one doesn't seem to be particularly exciting (still waiting for one close to our own planet's size), but still nice to see. Apparently it has yet to be confirmed as an object actually orbiting the star, but there's little chance of it being anything else so this is a mostly certain discovery. Here's some info on this new planet:

In 2003, the French team used the NAOS-CONICA instrument (or NACO [1]), mounted on one of the 8.2 m Unit Telescopes of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), to benefit from both the high image quality provided by the Adaptive Optics system at infrared wavelengths and the good dynamics offered by the detector, in order to study the immediate surroundings of Beta Pictoris.

Recently, a member of the team re-analysed the data in a different way to seek the trace of a companion to the star. Infrared wavelengths are indeed very well suited for such searches. "For this, the real challenge is to identify and subtract as accurately as possible the bright stellar halo," explains Lagrange. "We were able to achieve this after a precise and drastic selection of the best images recorded during our observations."

The strategy proved very rewarding, as the astronomers were able to discern a feeble, point-like glow well inside the star's halo. To eliminate the possibility that this was an artefact and not a real object, a battery of tests was conducted and several members of the team, using three different methods, did the analysis independently, always with the same success. Moreover, the companion was also discovered in other data sets, further strengthening the team's conclusion: the companion is real.

"Our observations point to the presence of a giant planet, about 8 times as massive as Jupiter and with a projected distance from its star of about 8 times the Earth-Sun distance, which is about the distance of Saturn in our Solar System [2]," says Lagrange.

"We cannot yet rule out definitively, however, that the candidate companion could be a foreground or background object," cautions co-worker Gael Chauvin. "To eliminate this very small possibility, we will need to make new observations that confirm the nature of the discovery."


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