The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) recently took near-infrared images of a body apparently orbiting the brown dwarf 2M1207 that could be the first image of an exoplanet. The reddish object is calculated to be about 5 times the mass of Jupiter. Water was detected in its spectra, suggesting it is too cool to be a star or brown dwarf. Research over the next two years should prove whether or not the object is actually orbiting 2M1207.
While over a hundred exoplanets have been detected since the early 1990s, none have been directly imaged. They have instead been detected by their minute tugging on their parent star or quick dips in light from the star as the planet passes in front of it. Several upcoming spacecraft and ground-based missions hope to greatly increase this number, but the real anticipation has been for actual pictures of these objects. Scientists hope to start discovering Earth-sized planets over the next few years and start taking pictures of such planets during the next decade.
The ability of modern telescopes to correct for the atmospheric blurring of our view of the universe has ushered in an exciting new age of exploration. In fact, several new telescopes just now being brought online will exceed the Hubble Telescope in capability. Just twenty years ago astronomers were pushing for a fleet of space telescopes that would take advantage of the fact that there is no blurring in a vacuum. About that time, researchers began developing interferometer technology, adaptive optics and other techniques for correcting blurring in ground-based telescopes. These technologies have finally matured, allowing telescopes right here on the ground to take breathtaking images of faint objects almost unimaginably far away.
[Header credit: ESO – “The Brown Dwarf Object 2M1207 and GPCC“]