As you may have seen in the news, two explanet research teams have taken the first pictures of planets orbiting other stars. The astronomy community is buzzin' right now--this is absolutely huge! Up until now, we've only sensed the presence of planets by detecting their gravitational influence on their parent stars, or seeing the planet eclipse its star as viewed from Earth. The difficulty with taking pictures of planets is that the little guys are so much fainter than their host stars. It's analogous to seeing someone hold a candle next to a light house in Hawaii...as viewed from California!
Now we actually have portraits of two exoplanetary systems: Fomalhaut b, and HR8799 b, c and d. My former Berkeley classmate, Mike Fitzgerald, is 3rd author on the Fomalhaut b paper. Nice work Mike!
In the picture above, you can see the Fomalhaut planet orbiting just inside of a massive "debris disk" that is a lot like our solar system's Kuiper belt (where Pluto lives). The star is blotted out by a shield-like object mounted on the telescope kinda like the Sun visor on your car, which makes the whole thing look like the Eye of Sauron, huh?
There's something very powerful about actually seeing planets sitting there next to some of our stellar neighbors. What's especially cool, at least from my perspective, is that these new planets orbit stars more massive than our Sun. Known as "A-type stars" or "A dwarfs," Fomalhaut and HR8799 are about twice as hefty as our star. My own research has shown that stars more massive than the Sun are twice as likely stars to have planets. Mass matters when it comes to planets. It's nice confirmation to see--actually see--the first imaged planets around such massive stars! Here's an excellent writeup by Greg Laughlin over at oklo.org. You can follow the links he posted to see more cool pictures.
So remember where you were when astronomers announced the first pictures of planets outside of the solar system!
Update: Check out another good post here at the Bad Astromomy blog.
Update 2: NPR Science Friday Podcast here.