PORTLAND, Ore. Details about the first visible-light picture of a planet orbiting a distant star were recently revealed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
NASA claims that visible-light surveys by the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed the existence of the planet, called Fomalhaut-b, 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis (Southern Fish).
Astrononers confirmed the young, Saturn-like planet's 872-year orbit by measuring its displacement between the two Hubble exposures 21 months apart and applying Kepler's laws of planetary motion.
The planet was named after its star, Fomalhaut, and orbits about 10.7 billion miles from the starabout 10 times the distance from Saturn to our Suninside a giant debris disk about 21.5 billion miles in diameter.
For years, astronomers have predicted the planet's existence using various indirect methods, but NASA recently reported details about how the Hubble Space Telescope confirmed its existence with rare visible light photographs.
The advanced camera used a coronagraph to block out the bright glare from the Fomalhaut star, allowing the planet to be photographedsimilar to the way the Moon blocks out the Sun's glare during eclipses enabling its corona to be photographed.
Excess dust was discovered around the distant star as far back as 1980 using NASA's Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS). But since 2006 the coronagraph on the advanced camera has confirmed the planet's existence with high-resolution visible images of the dust surrounding Fomalhaut.
The planet appears as a bright area in the dust only a few pixels in diameter. The planet moves only about 0.425 arcseconds per yearthe width of a penny seen from 5 miles away.
Unfortunately, since Fomalhaut is 16 times brighter than our Sun, it will burn out 10 times faster, giving life a diminished opportunity to develop on any habitable planets orbiting it.
Nevertheless, NASA is currently using infrared detectors to determine whether water vapor exists in the atmosphere of Fomalhaut-b, a relatively young planet at just 100 million years old.
In 2013, NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch and begin making ultra-detailed coronagraphic observations to hunt for other possibly habitable planets near Fomalhaut.