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Large Telescope Captures Spectacular Image of an Exoplanet Four Times the Size of Jupiter

First Posted: May 16, 2014 09:01 AM EDT
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Astronomers are learning more and more about the exoplanets outside of our solar system. Now, using one of the world's largest telescopes, scientists have managed to track the orbit of a planet at least four times the size of Jupiter.

The massive exoplanet is called Beta Pictoris b; it's located about 63 light years from our solar system. The gas giant was imaged by the Gemini Planet Imager's (GPI) next-generation, high-contrast adaptive optics (AO) system.  This allowed scientists to capture an amazingly clear and bright image of the planet after an exposure of just one minute.

The researchers used a series of images captured by the telescope in order to refine the estimate of the planet's orbit. They examined two disks, made up of dense gas and debris, around the planet's parent star. Surprisingly, they found that the planet is not aligned with the star's main debris disk, but is instead aligned to and potentially interacting with an inner warped component disk.

"Our goal is to understand how these planetary systems have developed," said Lisa Poyneer, one of the researchers, in a news release. "If Beta Pictoris b is warping the disk, that helps us see how the planet-forming disk in our own solar system might have evolved long ago."

That's not all the researchers found, either. They also discovered that there's a small chance that the planet will transit in late 2017. This means that the exoplanet will partially block its star as seen from Earth, which would allow for a very precise measurement of the planet's size. This, in turn, would tell scientists a lot more about the planet itself.

Currently, the research team is assessing how the AO system is performing and making adjustments to it so that it can image even more exoplanets. This will allow scientists to learn a bit more about the universe as they explore more planets outside of our solar system.

The findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See Now: NASA's Juno Spacecraft's Rendezvous With Jupiter's Mammoth Cyclone

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