Fomalhaut b

Scientists announced today that the Hubble Telescope has apparently captured the first visible-light images of an extrasolar planet, a massive gas giant orbiting the star Fomalhaut. See the picture below at right (courtesty the Associated Press) to see what Hubble shot, and how it moved over the course of a couple of years. Fomalhaut (the star at the center of the dust cloud) is relatively close to us, a mere 25 light years away. It is the 18th brightest star in the night sky, and now we have glimpsed its robust planetary system.

While this is cool for space nerds under any circumstances, it gets even cooler as Fomalhaut is clearly, easily visible these days in the part of the world where I (and many of you) live. Go out pretty much anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard around 10 PM at night and look South: there will be a very bright star to the south-southwest, about 15 degrees above the horizon. That would be the Fomalhaut system, with its planets, its spectacular dust cloud, and its class A star at its center.

It’ll just be a bright speck when you look at it, yes, but you can ponder the marvels of that spectacular dust cloud in the picture, and know that there are multiple planets plowing through it, including the one we’ve spotted with what counts as bare eyes in galactic terms. Who knows: in that clear area inside the dust cloud, there might even be a little rocky planet encased in a blue and green shroud of water vapor and nitrogen, with some alien space dorks pondering Jupiter and Saturn and wondering what tiny planets might exist within that crazy asteroid¬†ring that our little star wears like a thick leather ’70s belt.

Happy stargazing. Happy planet pondering. Happy awe.

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