a sun like ours in an unexpected neighborhood

Around the time Michelangelo began painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and nearly 100 years before the English settled Jamestown, the light in the picture below left star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 and headed towards Earth.  As described in this paper, this image was constructed from observations at the Gemini North Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii between April and August of this year.

1RXS J160929.1-210524 and its "planetary mass candidate" companion

This star’s “planetary mass candidate companion” (fancy for “probable planet”) is in the upper left hand of the image. This isn’t the first extrasolar planet – it’s been 16 years since the first one was discovered in 1992. There have been over 300 extrasolar planets discovered since then. This isn’t even the first directly imaged extrasolar planet. But if confirmed, this will be the first directly imaged extrasolar planet orbiting a star similar to our Sun.

This planet is estimated to be over 10 times further away from its star than Neptune is from our Sun. And it’s roughly 8 times more massive than Jupiter. Both of these factors surely helped the observers distinguish the star from its companion, a tough job when using a direct observation technique (as opposed to an indirect observation of a star’s “wobble” caused by an orbiting companion, for instance). But I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment – this observation was made through the Earth’s atmosphere, which requires highly sophisticated optical correction techniques.

The researchers estimate they’ll need another few years to confirm with high confidence that this companion is actually gravitationally attached to this star.

Oh yeah, about that unexpected neighborhood part…  This star isn’t exactly our next door neighbor, but relatively speaking, 500 light years is just down the cul-de-sac.  Recall that our Milky Way is approximately 100,000 light years in diameter.

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