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06/03/2013

Far, far away, a very light exoplanet

Exoplanet

This image shows the newly discovered planet next to its parent star. The star itself has been removed from the picture during processing to enhance the view of the faint exoplanet, which appears at the lower left. (Credit: ESO/J. Rameau)

The European Southern Observatory today released a picture of what is likely the least-massive planet ever directly observed outside our own solar system, an image captured on the ESO's aptly-named Very Large Telescope.


The planet orbits a young star named HD95086, so the new planet is called, thrillingly, HD95086 b. The star, which is slightly bigger than our own sun, sits in a solar system 300 light years away from us.


While the planet is likely the least-massive ever directly observed, it's still probably four or five times heavier than Jupiter (which, you might remember, is already twice as heavy as all the other planets in our solar system combined).

Thousands of other exoplanets have been discovered, but usually via indirect detection: scientists either measure the light of a distant star dipping as a planet passes in front of it, or they measure the effects of a planet's gravitational pull on its host star.

Only a few have been detected directly, through a telescope.

The scientists used optical instruments attached to the the 8.2-metre-long telescope to clear away some of the blurring that one gets when attempting to pick out an object hundreds of light years away.  

Because of how bright the star is, the researchers estimate that the surface temperature of the planet is around 700 degrees Celsius.

That temperature is suitable for the existence of water vapour and possibly methane in the planet's atmosphere.

But probably no aliens, unless they're really, really tanned.

Kate Allen is the Star's science and technology reporter. Find her on Twitter at @katecallen.

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