Following on from recent reports of visible-light images of planets outside our solar system, a team of astronomers led by Anne-Marie Lagrange at the Observatoire de Grenoble has reanalysed infrared observations of the dusty disk surrounding the young star Beta Pictoris, and found what they say is very likely to be a massive planet orbiting at the same distance Saturn is from the sun. It is a very impressive result.
Beta Pictoris is a hot star about 70 lights years away in the constellation Pictor (the Painter). The star emits more infrared radiation than others of its type, and this emission originates in a large halo surrounding the star which is composed of dust resulting from collisions between asteroid-sized objects.
The disk around Beta Pictoris was the first to be imaged around another star. This was done in 1984. Given the well-developed nature of its debris disk, Beta Pictoris has for some time now commanded the attention of planet hunters.
Further observations are needed to confirm for sure that the object is associated with the star. However, given that the light source lies in the plane of the proto-planetary disk, and the object’s mass and distance are consistent with what is known about the disk, the implication is that it is a planet bound to the star. If so, then it will be the closest planet from its star ever imaged.
Note: The European Southern Observatory point-of-contact for this story is listed as “Dr Henri Boffin”.
Further reading: “A probable giant planet imaged in the β Pictoris disk”, Lagrange et al., Astronomy & Astrophysics, November 2008.