Via pretty much everywhere, here’s some space-pr0n for your Friday morning – real-light images from the Hubble telescope show a planet orbiting the relatively near-by star of Fomalhaut.
Astronomy types have been inferring the presence of exoplanets by gravitational lensing for a few years now, but this is apparently the first time one has been imaged directly. [image from linked NASA webpage, which has a full credit list nearly as long as this entire blog post]
Personally, I can’t read this story without being taken back to the golden years of staying up stupidly late to play Elite – if I remember correctly, Fomalhaut was an Imperial system where you could get a great price on slaves…
Astronomers have discovered a planet in the 55 Cancri system that orbits constantly in what is know as the ‘habitable zone’ of the solar system. Although the planet is a gas giant some 45 times the size of Earth, there’s a good chance one of its moons might have liquid water and hence encourage the development of earth-like life. Planets are found by studying their transits across the light of a star. By studying the amount the star dims when the planet crosses, the size of the planet can be estimated. This is limited to larger planets currently but future missions like the Kepler and Darwin projects may be able to find rocky planets like our own.
The search for ‘exoplanets’ outside our solar system is hitting its stride and regularly more are found. Whilst the planets found to date are all ‘Jupiters’ like the gas giants further out in our home system, we know that Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus all have large satellites. If any of these were in the habitable region where Earth is, the possibility of liquid water and hence bacterial life would be likely. If 55 Cancri did support life on one of its moons it would resemble the world of Coyote in Allen Steele’s excellent series.
[via the guardian, image of Darwin project via Astronomy Online]
Doing SF writers’ work for them, a U.S. research team has worked out the properties of a variety of weird planet types that could exist in alien solar systems, including graphite planets and carbon monoxide spheres. Of course, they didn’t do it to help writers (though that would be a fine reason do do such a thing): instead, they hope the models will help astronomers identify the properties of exoplanets they discover in the future.
And yes, say the scientists, weird as these worlds are, some of them could harbour life…though not necessarily Life As We Know It.
(Via New Scientist Space.)
(Illustration: Marc Kuchner/NASA-GSFC via New Scientist Space)
[tags]exoplanets, astronomy, science fiction, space[/tags]
This story is everywhere today, but my preferred source for the real unsensationalised science behind astronomy headlines is Centauri Dreams, which explains that, while there is indeed water in the atmosphere of exoplanet HD 189733b, it’s almost certainly not in the liquid form that we are used to finding it in. The good news is that it suggests water-abundant star systems are not a rarity – so maybe one day we’ll find a planet more like our own.