Last year astronomers working with the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile released an image of what appeared to be an exoplanet orbiting a brown dwarf. In January 2005 the Hubble Space Telescope was used to snap another image, providing initial confirmation that the two bodies were gravitationally related (previously reported on Frontier Channel.) Now, a little over a year later, the original astronomers have announced conclusive confirmation that they did in fact capture the first ever image of an exoplanet. The newest image was released yesterday by ESO.
The exoplanet, now named 2M1207b, is roughly 5 times larger than Jupiter and orbits its parent brown dwarf, 2M1207, at a distance about 55 times further out than the Earth orbits our own Sun. The finding brings to three the total number of sub-stellar sized objects that have now been photographed in the past two years. AB Pic b, orbiting a star called AB Pictoris and GQ Lup b/B, orbiting another star called GQ Lupi have also been listed as “first image” exoplanet candidates, but astronomers have not yet confirmed whether these objects are in fact exoplanets or much larger brown dwarfs.
These discoveries appear to indicate that the number of planets in our galaxy and beyond may be higher than expected, especially since it now appears planets can also form around brown dwarfs. As telescopes become more powerful, they will allow scientists to image more exoplanets, leading to the first images of Earth-sized planets orbiting other stars, perhaps in the next decade.