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The discovery, announced June 10 in Science, proves that giant planets can form quickly around young stars and suggests that dust disks are signposts for stars hosting giant planets.
Using the Very Large Telescope in Chile, astronomers took infrared images of the planet in two different positions around its star in 2003 and late 2009. “It’s so exciting that we can see it,” said astronomer Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the new work. “We’ve been looking a long time.”
Beta Pictoris, a star almost twice the mass of the sun and located 63 light-years away, has been a celebrity among planet hunters since the 1984 discovery of a wide halo of dust and rocky debris that could eventually coalesce into planets. Later observations showed that the disk was oddly warped, and that it had a big hole near the center.
Because Beta Pictoris is such a young star — about 10 million years old, or two thousandths the age of the solar system — studying its planetary system can help astronomers decide between competing models of planet formation. For instance, earlier theoretical work showed that debris disks around stars broke up fairly quickly, within a few million years. Some theorists worried that massive planets wouldn’t be able to form fast enough, but the planet around Beta Pictoris is proof that they can
The planet weighs in between six and 12 times the mass of Jupiter, similar to the models’ predictions. It orbits its star at about the orbit of Saturn, between eight and 13 times the distance from the Earth to the sun, making it the closest planet to a star ever imaged. It also means the planet makes a complete circuit around its star every 17 to 30 Earth years, well within human lifetimes.
The next step is to observe the planet in more wavelengths to get an idea of what its atmosphere is made of, Lagrange said. And with new instruments like the Gemini Planet Imager coming online, the next few years should see even more direct images of extrasolar planets.