Planets, planets everywhere
Extrasolar planetary system makes its pictorial debut
Two teams of extrasolar planet hunters reported that they have achieved a long-sought milestone: obtaining what appear to be the first bona fide images of planets orbiting stars beyond the solar system (SN: 12/6/08, p. 5).
One team, using the Hubble Space Telescope, recorded a single planet around the massive star Fomalhaut, which lies just 25 light-years from Earth. The other team, using two large ground-based telescopes on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, took images of three planets orbiting a star — the first portrait of an entire planetary system outside the solar system. Details of both findings appeared online November 13 in separate articles in Science.
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The planetary trio orbits a massive star called HR 8799, about 130 light-years from Earth. A comparison of old and new images proved that the newly discovered orbs are not mere background objects, but true planets, gravitationally bound to and circling their parent star. Hubble images taken four years apart show that the body near Fomalhaut also orbits that star.
While questions remain about the objects’ masses, the discovery of the planetary trio, a stretched-out version of the outer solar system, is unprecedented. “This one might well be the real enchilada,” says theorist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.
Tasting ice After struggling to deliver a soil sample to its ovens, the Phoenix Mars Lander confirms the presence of water ice on Mars (
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Family for Pluto Pluto and its dwarf planet neighbors in the outer solar system are rechristened “plutoids” by the International Astronomical Union (SN: 7/5/08, p. 7).
Wake up Hubble NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope falls silent in September after failure of its data-formatting unit. Though Hubble comes back online in October, the problem delays a final shuttle mission until 2009 (SN Online: 10/30/08).
On the move A newly discovered “dark flow” appears to carry galaxy clusters toward a point in the southern sky, researchers suggest (SN: 10/15/08, p.12).
Titan’s ethane pool Scientists confirm that Saturn’s hydrocarbon-shrouded moon has at least one ethane lake (SN Online: 7/30/08).
Postcards from the edge Voyager 2 travels nearly to the edge of the solar system, reaching the termination shock (SN: 8/2/08, p. 7).
Gamma vision The Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s first findings include discoveries about pulsars and gamma-ray bursts, and may hint at the nature of quantum gravity (SN: 1/3/09, p. 9).
Signs of habitability Astronomers for the first time detect carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of an exoplanet (SN: 1/3/09, p. 8).
Spotting a supernova Thanks to a lucky break and an overactive galaxy, astronomers detect a supernova event earlier than ever before (SN: 3/8/08, p. 148).
Cosmic measures WMAP results offer a more precise age for the universe and allow astronomers to infer the existence of a vast sea of neutrinos (SN: 3/15/08, p. 163).
Messages from Mercury The MESSENGER spacecraft flies past Mercury twice, revealing the origin of the planet’s magnetic field, hinting at the presence of early volcanic activity and providing the first looks at the planet’s surface composition (SN: 8/2/08, p. 7), (SN Online: 10/29/08).