Let me start by saying: It was really cool to be allowed to call in to the NASA press conference to hear the announcement live. I am space today.*
So here’s what NASA had to say:
The Hubble Space Telescope collected the first visible light images of a planet circling another star. The star, Fomalhaut, is one of the twenty brightest stars in the sky; even though it’s about 27 light years away, it’s visible with the naked eye if you know where to look (an image of the constellation is on the page linked below).
The planet, known as Fomalhaut-B, was observed in 2004 and 2006, but not “discovered” until scientists reanalyzed their data this past Memorial Day weekend. The NASA team concluded that the object was a planet based on three factors: first, its relatively low mass of around three Jupiters; second, the presence of a perturbed dust ring in the Fomalhaut equivalent of our Kuiper Belt; and third, comparative images from 2004 and 2006 that show the planet’s motion in its orbit. The team expressed high confidence that Fomalhaut-B was a planet rather than a brown dwarf star because the object did not show up at infrared wavelengths as a brown dwarf should, but was only detected using visible wavelengths.
After the next Hubble servicing mission, the team hopes to make further observations of the Fomalhaut system. With a third observation of the planet in its orbit, they can make more accurate calculations of its orbital elements.
As a space geek and would-be “steely-eyed missile man,” this was pretty awesome for me. 😀
*To add to all the other days when I was space, which seem oh so long ago now. I miss my space days.