Get ready for more interstellar signposts. Astronomers have directly spotted no less than three planets orbiting a star that sits 130 light-years from Earth. The three gas giants are 10 to seven times the size of Jupiter, with their parent star weighing in at 1.5 times the mass of our sun. Both the Gemini North telescope and W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii helped scope out the planets through infrared light.
Another group has claimed the first direct visible-light image of an extrasolar planet. Researchers previously suspected that a planet was disturbing the edge of a debris disk surrounding the Fomalhaut star, just 25 light-years distant. Now the ailing Hubble Space Telescope has taken a snapshot of the planet no more than three times the size of Jupiter – and one billion times fainter than its star.
Astronomers have already found evidence for over 300 extrasolar planets and counting. But those only showed up indirectly through their detectable gravitational and light-blocking effects on parent stars. The new infrared and visible-light pictures give us a first good look at alien worlds beyond our solar system.
All the fuss may still seem strange if none of us will live to see humans reach distant planets – at least not without some far-out technologies. Yet scientists can get excited about the latest images because they represent another step toward finding Earth-like planets orbiting other stars. Such similar planets would give us a basis for comparison on a number of physical features, notably the existence of life.
It's no real surprise that our fascination with other planets extends from a fascination with ourselves. Perhaps human descendants will eventually reach the distant star systems that astronomers can now only glimpse through telescopes. But if sci-fi storylines such as WALL-E and Battlestar Galactica give any indication, all roads eventually lead back to Earth.
Fomalhaut means "mouth of the whale" in arabic. This star is 21 million light years away, which is actually fairly close. At most Fomalhaut is only about 300 million years old, which is far too young for any but the simplest form of life to appear. Alas, Fomalhaut will die long before any multi-cellular life form could appear on its planets, for the reason that this type of star lives at most a billion years before burning itself out.
I don't know where you got 21 million lightyears, since it says right there its 25 lightyears away. And 21 million lightyears is by no means close by, ;)
But you are right about it being far too young to form life, and probably won't by the time of its death. Even cyanobacteria, probably the first form of life on earth, took 1.6 billion years to form.
Still crazy awesome that we've finely been able to image extrasolar planets. Its incredible to imagine what they could be like, even though we still don't know all we can about the planets withing our own solar system.