Astronomers in the U.S., Australia, and Chile have photographed and confirmed the existence of three new exoplanets that circle young stars in our galactic neighborhood. Exoplanets are generally quite difficult to capture visually, but these are among the very few to be caught in actual photos.
The scientists describe their findings in an oddly touching abstract for a draft of their report, "Three Wide Planetary-Mass Companions to FW Tau, Roxs 12, and Roxs 42b":
We report the discovery of three planetary-mass companions (M = 6–20 MJup) in wide orbits (ρ ∼ 150–300 AU) around the young stars FW Tau (Taurus-Auriga), ROXs 12 (Ophiuchus), and ROXs 42B (Ophiuchus). All three wide planetary-mass companions (“PMCs”) were reported as candidate companions in previous binary survey programs, but then were neglected for >10 years. We therefore obtained followup observations which demonstrate that each candidate is comoving with its host star.
In each image, the newly discovered planet is labeled with a lowercase b. FW TAU b, at the left, is orbiting a pair of stars at a whopping distance of 50 billion kilometers. For context, the Earth orbits the sun at a distance of 146.9 million kilometers.
According to Phil Plait at Slate, the newly confirmed planets join a rare few that have been captured on film:
Only about a dozen planets have been directly photographed, and even then some are controversial; their ages aren’t well known, and that affects their measured mass. Some might be brown dwarfs, objects intermediate in mass between planets and stars.
Roxs 42B b, at right, is also circling a pair of stars, and maybe large enough to be called a brown dwarf rather than a planet. Rox 12B b, below, could also be large enough to justify a brown dwarf classification. Like FW Tau b, the companion planet appears to have a ring around it - which means it could still be accumulating mass and growing.
NASA recently announced that it will restart its Kepler exoplanet searching missing, which was halted because two of four gyroscopic reaction wheels were on the fritz. Exoplanets, some of which could possess earth-like features, are considered to be potentially habitable.