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An enormous alien planet that some astronomers thought was dead and buried has come back to life, a new study suggests.
A new analysis of observations from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope found that the bright nearby star Fomalhaut does indeed host a huge exoplanet, which scientists dubbed a "zombie" world in an aptly Halloween-themed video on the alien planet. This conclusion contradicts other recent studies, which determined that the so-called planet — known as Fomalhaut b — is actually just a giant dust cloud.
"Given what we know about the behavior of dust and the environment where the planet is located, we think that we're seeing a planetary object that is completely embedded in dust rather than a free-floating dust cloud," co-author John Debes, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in a statement.
The saga of Fomalhaut b began in November 2008, when Hubble astronomers announced that a planet circled Fomalhaut, which lies 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Austrinus. Fomalhaut b was the first alien world ever directly imaged in visible light, they said.
The planet was spotted just inside a vast debris ring surrounding but slightly offset from the star. Based on Fomalhaut b's location and mass — estimated to be less than three times that of Jupiter — astronomers thought the planet's gravitational pull likely explained the ring's appearance.
"What we've seen from our analysis is that the object's minimum distance from the disk has hardly changed at all in two years, which is a good sign that it's in a nice ring-sculpting orbit," said co-author Timothy Rodigas of the University of Arizona.
The team also attempted to spot Fomalhaut b in the infrared using Hawaii's Subaru Telescope but came up empty. The non-detections with Subaru and Spitzer imply that the planet's mass must be less than twice that of Jupiter, researchers said.
The study has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Another team targeted the Fomalhaut system with Hubble in May; their results are expected to be published soon.