Image: 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)The Loch Ness Monster. Sasquatch. The exoplanet Fomalhaut b. We have clear photographic evidence of only one of these - and yes, it's the exoplanet.
Exoplanets are planets in other solar systems. Though astronomers have detected over 300 exoplanets since 1995, we only have visible-light images of one of them. These photos of the planet Fomalhaut b, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, have just been published in Science magazine by UC Berkeley astronomer Paul Kalas. The exoplanet Fomalhaut b orbits the star Fomalhaut (pronounced "foam-a-lot"), and at 25 light years away is the closest exoplanet that we know of.
Up until now, astronomers could only detect exoplanets using indirect methods. To learn more about the star wobbles and dips in starlight that indicate other planets are out there, check out QUEST's radio story, Exoplanets, and QUEST's television story, Planet Hunters. These exoplanets are trillions of miles away, but the research happens close to home at the Lick Observatory near San Jose, and at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland.
Over the next few years, astronomers will likely detect additional exoplanets, and will learn much more about them. In 2009, NASA will launch the satellite telescope Kepler, which will be able to detect smallish Earth-sized planets. And in 2013, the James Webb Space Telescope will go into orbit. As stated in this press release, astronomer Paul Kalas hopes the James Webb Space Telescope will tell us whether there are other planets orbiting Fomalhaut - and whether those planets might be able to sustain life. Who knows - maybe on one of those planets, aliens are collecting snapshots of Earth.