Our Search for Earth’s Twin: The First Direct Photo of an Exoplanet

Exoplanet This infrared-light photo taken by Gemini Observatory's adaptive optics system shows the star 1RSX J160929.1-210524 and its planet, which is about 8 times the size of Jupiter. The exoplanet, the dot at the upper left, is the first one to be directly photographed. Gemini Observatory

The adaptive optics system at the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii snapped this photo in the infrared part of the light spectrum. It shows a hot, large Jupiter-like planet near a smallish sun-like star. It was actually found two years ago, but astronomers couldn't be sure they were really looking at a planetary system and not some lucky alignment of objects. Now they're sure.

"Our new observations rule out this chance alignment possibility, and thus confirms that the planet and the star are related to each other," says David Lafrenière of the University of Montreal and Center for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec.

The team also took the planet's spectrum, measuring its temperature and composition. Now that they know it really does orbit this star, Lafrenière retroactively claims firstie on an exoplanet spectrum.

Other famous exoplanet photos have shown us blocked-out stars with fuzzy dots at their sides. This one shows the blazing star, too, but within a solar system.

The planet is also special because it challenges planetary scientists' best planet-formation theories. It's far from its star, about 300 times farther than Jupiter is from the sun. It would take the planet roughly 1,000 years to complete one orbit.

The planet has water vapor, carbon monoxide and molecular hydrogen, but it's a scorching 2,700 degrees F, way hotter than Jupiter. This temperature at such a distance shows that the planet is very young, according to Gemini Observatory..

The star, about 85 percent of our sun's size, is young, too — it's about 500 light-years away in a group of young stars called the Upper Scorpius association, which formed about five million years ago. By contrast, our star is about 4.6 billion years old. 

The Gemini team believes this hot, large Jupiter is alone — unless it has some very small companions they have not yet been able to detect. In the coming years, they will study the planet's orbit, which could shed more light on how it formed.

Casey Kazan via Gemini Observatory via Space.com

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