Feeds

NASA catches light from another planet

Heralds new era in planet watching

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

Build a business case: developing custom apps

Scientists working with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope have directly observed light from a known extra-solar planet. The US space agency has hailed the breakthrough as the beginning of a "new age" in planetary science.

Regular Register readers might remember a picture of an extra-solar planet, released in January this year. This is a mere planetary candidate however, so is not quite so exciting to the men and women in white coats. The lead scientist on that project, Glenn Schneider, told New Scientist that he suspects the "planetary mass" formed quite differently to the planets in our own solar system.

This new research involves planets classed as "Hot Jupiters", which orbit sun-like stars, and probably evolved in a similar way to Earth. The results reveal that the so-called "hot Jupiters" are worth of the name. Both planets clock in at least 1,000 Kelvin, or 727 degrees Celsius. Further analysis is expected to uncover more detail about the condition and composition of the planets' atmospheres.

The technique is reasonably simple. The team aimed Spitzer at two already-confirmed planets, named HD 209458b and TrES-1 (in traditionally romantic space parlance) and their parent stars. Watching in the infrared, the researchers collected the total amount of light from star and planet combined. Then, when the planet passed behind the star, they measured the amount of light left over. The difference between the two samples let them know how much infrared light was emanating directly from the planet. More details here.

Drake Deming from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is lead author on one of the studies, to be published in Nature. He told New Scientist: "This is the first time we have actually seen light."

Dr David Charbonneau of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, lead author of the other paper, to be published in Astrophysical Journal, commented: "We've been hunting for this light for almost 10 years, ever since extra-solar planets were first discovered. In visible light, the glare of the star completely overwhelms the glimmer of light reflected by the planet. In infrared, the star-planet contrast is more favourable because the planet emits its own light."

The Spitzer telescope was not designed to image extra-solar planets, and is best suited for studying planets that transit their sun-sized parent star, and are at a distance of up to 500 light-years. In 2016, NASA plans to launch the Terrestrial Planet Finder coronagraph. This will be able to snap pictures of extra-solar planets as small as Earth. ®

Update

Our thanks to vulture-eyed reader Thomas Davie for pointing out that a team of astronomers at St. Andrew's University did something very similar last century. In a statement at the time, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council described the system as follows: "The planet’s parent star, Tau Bootis, is located 55 light years from the Earth. It is easily seen by the naked eye but its planet has only been suggested at before based on the "wobble" in the light coming from the star as the planet travels around it."

Related stories

Astronomers eyeball smallest star yet
Frozen sea on Mars hints at alien life
Astronomers spot fun-sized solar system
Extra-solar planet snapped by galactic paparazzi

The Essential Guide to IT Transformation

More from The Register

next story
Just TWO climate committee MPs contradict IPCC: The two with SCIENCE degrees
'Greenhouse effect is real, but as for the rest of it ...'
Asteroid's DINO KILLING SPREE just bad luck – boffins
Sauricide WASN'T inevitable, reckon scientists
Flamewars in SPAAACE: cooler fires hint at energy efficiency
Experiment aboard ISS shows we should all chill out for cleaner engines
Boffins discuss AI space program at hush-hush IARPA confab
IBM, MIT, plenty of others invited to fill Uncle Sam's spy toolchest, but where's Google?
NASA Mars rover FINALLY equals 1973 Soviet benchmark
Yet to surpass ancient Greek one, however
Famous 'Dish' radio telescope to be emptied in budget crisis: CSIRO
Radio astronomy suffering to protect Square Kilometre Array
BEST BATTERY EVER: All lithium, all the time, plus a dash of carbon nano-stuff
We have found the Holy Grail (of batteries) - boffins
prev story

Whitepapers

Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Consolidation: The Foundation for IT Business Transformation
In this whitepaper learn how effective consolidation of IT and business resources can enable multiple, meaningful business benefits.
Backing up Big Data
Solving backup challenges and “protect everything from everywhere,” as we move into the era of big data management and the adoption of BYOD.
Boost IT visibility and business value
How building a great service catalog relieves pressure points and demonstrates the value of IT service management.
Why and how to choose the right cloud vendor
The benefits of cloud-based storage in your processes. Eliminate onsite, disk-based backup and archiving in favor of cloud-based data protection.