Hubble's Universe Unfiltered

  • April 17, 2009

    Episode 7: Eye Spy a Planet

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    Shownotes

    Up until the 1990s, we only knew of the planets in our own solar system. Since then, we have discovered over 300 planets orbiting other stars. However, most of these planets were found when scientists observed the effect of the planet's gravity upon their host stars. Astronomers could not show the world what we wanted most: a visible-light picture of a planet around a star like the Sun. That situation changed in November 2008 with a discovery by the Hubble Space Telescope. Join us for the story that begins a new era in our knowledge of planetary systems.

    • Note that Hubble's discovery of Fomalhaut b is billed as the "first visible-light snapshot of a planet orbiting another star." It is important to note that the first direct detection of a planet will likely turn out to be the planet known as 2M1207 b. However, the host, 2M1207, is not a full-fledged star, but a brown dwarf (see below). In addition, pictures of three planets around HR 8799, released the same day as the Fomalhaut discovery, were taken in the infrared.

    • Let me clarify about 2M1207. It has less than 3% the mass of our Sun, roughly 25 times the mass of Jupiter. That mass places it in the brown dwarf category: large enough to ignite deuterium fusion in its core (thus not a planet), but not large enough for hydrogen fusion (thus not a star). Brown dwarfs glow faintly at formation and then spend the rest of their lives cooling and fading away. Brown dwarfs are generally thought to be those objects with between 15 and 70 times the mass of Jupiter.

    • I wanted to make a joke that what the Hubble image of Fomalhaut looked most like is the "Eye of Sauron" from the "Lord of the Rings" movies. However, New Line Cinema did not respond to my requests for permission, and my producer would not let me use the image in the podcast. That joke is one reason why the episode is called "Eye Spy."

    • A betting astronomer might have chosen Beta Pictoris as the first star around which a planet would have been seen. We have been getting intriguing evidence that planets should be there for more than a decade. However, since the disk in the Beta Pic system is roughly perpendicular to our line of sight, any planets will travel in front of and behind the star from our point of view. Hence, we could only observe them well during parts of their orbits. Face-on systems, like HR 8799, are much more favorable for direct images.

    • If confirmed, the Beta Pictoris planet would indicate that giant planets can form quickly. Beta Pictoris is about 12 million years old. We believe that giant planets must form within the first 10 million or so years of a developing system, as winds and radiation from newborn stars should remove the gas from the system on that timescale. A giant planet needs to accrete some of that gas during its formation, and thus must form in millions of years. In contrast, it is thought that Earth may take as much as a couple hundred million years to form.

    Image notes

    Solar System and Fomalhaut System Orbits 
    Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)

    Uranus in March 1781
    Adapted from screenshots of WorldWide Telescope

    Uranus from Voyager 2
    Credit: NASA/JPL

    Neptune from Voyager 2
    Credit: NASA/JPL

    55 Cancri System Orbits
    Credit: C. Godfrey (STScI)

    Piscis Austrinus Constellation
    Credit: A. Fujii, NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

    Hubble Image of Fomalhaut
    Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite (University of California, Berkeley), M. Clampin (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), M. Fitzgerald (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and K. Stapelfeldt and J. Krist (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

    Fomalhaut b in 2004 and 2006 
    Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas, J. Graham, E. Chiang, E. Kite (University of California, Berkeley), M. Clampin (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), M. Fitzgerald (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory), and K. Stapelfeldt and J. Krist (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

    Artist's Illustration of Fomalhaut b
    Credit: ESA, NASA, and L. Calcada (ESO for STScI)

    Keck Image of HR 8799 
    Credit: W.M. Keck Observatory

    Beta Pictoris Candidate Planet Credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al.