Astronomers see exoplanet orbiting its parent star!

By Phil Plait | June 10, 2010 12:00 pm

This is extremely cool news: astronomers have, for the first time, directly seen an exoplanet orbiting its star from one side to the other!

Here’s the incredible picture:

eso_betapicb

This makes me happy scientifically, of course, but also for personal reasons. Let me tell you a story. Two, in fact…

1) [Story the First] Beta Pic: the star, the planet, the disk

The star in question is Beta Pictoris (or just Beta Pic to its friends), a very young star — it’s only a few million years old, compared to the Sun’s advanced age of 4.56 billion — with about twice the Sun’s mass and 9 times its brightness. As stars go, Beta Pix is pretty close, just 63 light years away, and is easily bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye from the southern hemisphere.

In the above picture, taken using one of the European Southern Observatory’s ginormous 8.2 meter units of the Very Large Telescope, Beta Pic is represented by the dot in the center. The star is so bright its light swamps everything around it, so the star itself has been blocked by a piece of metal inside the camera that took the shot (that’s the reason for the dark circle in the center of the picture) so the astronomers subtracted the image of a nearby star to minimize the effects of the light from Beta Pic itself; this is a common technique I’ve used myself in Hubble images*. This allows us to see much fainter stuff near the star.

This picture is actually a composite of three separate observations. The outer part with the blue fuzzy stuff was observed in 1996, and I’ll get back to that in a sec. The good stuff is in the center: two images of the planet, called Beta Pic b, are superposed in the picture; it was observed in 2003 (left blob), then again in late 2009 (right blob). Observations taken just months before in 2008 and 2009 observation didn’t show the blob at all — it must have been too close to the star to be seen clearly — indicating this really is a planet orbiting the star, and not just some background object like a star or galaxy. In other words, astronomers have captured the motion of the planet as it physically moved from one side of the star to the other!

eso_betapic_artworkVery cool. Using these observations, the orbit of the planet has been roughly estimated and is shown in the picture as well, though the tilt of it has been exaggerated for clarity. In reality, we see the orbit almost exactly edge-on. But we can see right away the orbit is not circular! The planet is clearly farther from the star on the left than on the right, meaning its orbit is pretty elliptical. In fact, it varies in distance from one billion to 2 billion kilometers from Beta Pic — roughly the distance of the Sun to Saturn and Uranus, respectively. That’s a huge variation. If this planet were in our solar system, there would be chaos as its gravity disturbed the orbits of all the outer planets.

Now, back to the weird wing-like things sticking out of either side. Those are from a 1996 observation, and what you’re seeing there is the actual disk of dust and junk from which that planet (and star) formed. Back in the 1980s, it was first determined that Beta Pic was blasting out a lot more infrared light than would be expected for its type of star. Astronomers took a better look, and found that bright disk you see in the picture. We see the disk almost exactly edge-on, so it looks like a thick, fuzzy line.

stis_betapicOver the years, more observations showed more detail. See how the disk is warped, bent, twisting up on the left side and down on the right? The false-colored rainbow-hued image here shows observations of the disk using my old camera STIS (bottom; on top is an earlier WFPC2 image) on board Hubble, and the bumps and wiggles in the inner disk are easy to see. That sort of thing can happen if a planet in the disk is tugging on the material as it orbits the star. Lots of other observations tantalizingly hinted at a planet buried in that mess, but unfortunately technology wasn’t up to the task of teasing out a faint planet from the bright star and disk.

But that’s changed now.

2) [Story the Second] Planets, disks, Hubble, and me

And that’s why this is such a personal story for me. When I was a kid, there were 9 planets, and that was it. In 1992 the first planets were detected around other stars, and in 1995 the first planets were detected around sun-like stars. But the disk around Beta Pic was first seen in the 1980s, when I was just starting out in college as a young astronomy major. It’s important to note that Beta Pic was the very first star to be seen surrounded by such a disk, basically confirming for the first time that stars formed from disks of material. Seeing the early pictures were fascinating, but maddening: they hinted at a planet being there, but we just didn’t have the tech to see it!

Finding a planet orbiting another star was one of the most fundamentally important and exciting goals of astronomy at the time. Every time a new image came out, we were just barely squeaking closer to that goal. I would read every new journal paper, every new popular level article that came out, and every time the conclusion was the same: we’re just a few more years away from finding other planets.

Arrrg! It was like an itch that couldn’t be scratched, except this itch was a combination of poison ivy, poison oak, and a thousand mosquito bites. Maddening!

hst_abaurigaeOver the years I was tangentially involved with Beta Pic; I didn’t directly work on the rainbow STIS image of it above, but my boss Don Lindler did. I remember sitting around the office with Don and Sally Heap (the woman who made that STIS observation), talking about those images, trying to figure out how best to squeeze information and detail out of them. I also worked extensively with other astronomers who had observations of stars surrounded by disks.

Of all the work I did on Hubble, those were my favorite observations, and the ones I most enjoyed working on. I got to know them really well, like friends: AB Aurigae (pictured above), HD 163296, HD 100546, and others. These all had spectacular and beautiful disks of material swirling around them, all had the ingredients necessary to make planets. But no planets were to be seen.

That’s all changed now. We’ve seen and confirmed a planet around the grand-daddy of all these stars, Beta Pic. And, as we had hoped, the newly-discovered planet has the right location and the right mass to explain the warping of the disk. Astronomers were right all along!

And now, finally, after all those years, we’ve finally been able to scratch that itch. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Beta Pic Image credits: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange; L. Calçada. Hubble image credits: Al Schultz (CSC/STScI, and NASA), Sally Heap (GSFC/NASA); C.A. Grady (National Optical Astronomy Observatories, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), B. Woodgate (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), F. Bruhweiler and A. Boggess (Catholic University of America), P. Plait (hey!) and D. Lindler (ACC, Inc., Goddard Space Flight Center), M. Clampin (Space Telescope Science Institute), and NASA.



* My thanks to astronomer Sarah Kendrew for correcting me on this!


Related posts:

Another exoplanet imaged
Huge exoplanet news: pictures!
Planet imaged around a sunlike star?!


Comments (48)

  1. Adam

    Hey Phil,

    Is the piece of metal in the camera blocking the star light called a Loyt Stop?

    Interesting stuff!

  2. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow! I love this! :-D

    But ..

    In 1992 the first planets were detected around other stars …

    Weren’t the first exoplanets discovered around a pulsar in 1991?

    ***

    PSR B 1257+12 : The first planetary system ever found (back in 1991) and still one of the strangest. This system consists of 4 low mass worlds orbiting a pulsar incl. one just 1/5th the mass of Pluto. The inner three worlds resemble a half-sized model of our inner solar system with the planets spaced in almost the same proportions as Mercury, Venus and Earth while the tiny outermost world orbits at a distance equivalent to the middle of the asteroid belt in our system.

    ***

    (From my own exoplanet summary & notes file compiled from various sources.)

    Wolszczan & Frail I believe were the astronomers involved – right? ;-)

    Also :

    It’s important to note that Beta Pic was the very first star to be seen surrounded by such a disk,

    Weren’t the protoplanetary disks around Vega and Fomalhaut discovered before the one around Beta Pictoris by the IRAS satellite back in 1983? All Sirian (A type main-sequence dwarf) stars co-incidentally enough.

    BTW. What is the mass of the exoplanet Beta Pictoris B & do we we have a clear figure for that now?

    Still good write up of an awesome finding & thanks BA.

    This is superluminous (beyond merely brilliant!) news & I am delighted to hear it from you. :-)

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    The Wiki-page for IRAS (the Infrared Astronomical Satellite) is here if anyone’s curious :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRAS

    I think the discovery order protoplanetary disks~wise goes :

    1.Vega
    2. Fomalhaut & then
    3. Beta Pictoris

    all in 1983 as “infra-red excess” via IRAS but then I could be wrong ..

    (Remembering this from reading Patrick Moore’s books. :-) )

    To have been involved in this area of research at that time personally .. WOW BA! Just wow. :-D (Awe-struck.)

  4. So, what is the small black circle to the left in the upper edge of the blue bit?

  5. What’s the planet’s orbital period?

    We’ve noticed mostly fast orbiting planets so far, is this one substantially slower?

  6. Simon

    @Todd – yeah, that’s what I was wondering too. It’s too neat to be anything but an artifact?

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Hey, looking good!

    Analysis of Beta Pictoris and other stars within the Beta Pictoris moving group suggests that they are around 12 million years old.[10] Allowing for uncertainties, the age may range between 8 and 20 million years.[10]

    So the star has hit the main sequence, but the system is really young. Now if there was a consistent planet formation theory … but maybe there is by now. How is it coming? (The books I’m currently reading mentions a problem around cm to km large aggregates.)

  8. Is there a possibility that technology will get good enough that we would actually be able to capture an image of the planets themselves in those far off solar systems. I mean, a distinct image like we see our own solar systems planets and moons. Can you imagine how cool? We have come so far in the last 100 years in seeing out into the universe…it seems almost inevitable, but is it close to coming?

  9. “The planet is clearly farther from the star on the left than on the right, meaning its orbit is pretty elliptical.” Bad astronomy indeed: here you simply assumed that what you see are the extreme elongations, but there is no way of telling, given the extremely sparse observations. Actually reading the paper tells us that the eccentricity is probably smaller than 0.05, i.e. the orbit is practically circular, though we don’t know the (near-constant) distance from the star yet which can be anywhere between 8 and 15 AU.

  10. Bubba

    We. Are. Not. Alone.

  11. Schweet!
    To answer your question Non-Believer: The next thing is SIM, (SIM Lite to be exact), the Space Interferometry Mission. Then it is the TPF mission (if it ever gets funded) the Terrestrial Planet Finder or perhaps the ESA’s Darwin mission.

    After that, well, who knows? Something much bigger, probably (like TPF-I) an infrared interferometer… It’ll take time, what with the economy screwing up everybody’s budgets, but it’ll be sooooo worth it!

    Dan Fischer:
    Not only that, but if the major axis of an elongated orbit is oriented toward us, it’ll still look circular as the minor-axial elongations will be all we’d detect. There might be other mathematical tricks that could tease out the info, though…

  12. lordbubonicus

    @Messier Tidy Upper: Wolszczan and Frail’s paper was published in Nature in 1992. I don’t know when the observations were made, but that’s why we normally state that the first exoplanets were discovered in 1992. As far as a solid planetary mass estimate goes, unfortunately we’re still not there yet. The exoplanet encyclopedia still only has Msini listed, and that’s kept very well up to date.

    This is a rather cool story. Thanks for posting it Phil. I’ll have to add the paper to my reading pile. The exoplanet field is growing all the time, and it’s incredibly hard to keep up with it. I feel very lucky to be working in such an exciting area!

  13. Richard Drumm:
    Assuming a highly elliptical orbit with the major axis near the line of sight, one would still note a distinctly non-sinusoidal motion of the planet in the plane of the sky, if one had enough data points – it would go faster in one direction (at periastron) than in the other.

    In the case of Beta Pic’s planet, though, the new paper’s authors refer to this paper from 2007 which makes a case for a low-eccentricity planet based on how its gravity affects the disk.

  14. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Todd W.:

    So, what is the small black circle to the left in the upper edge of the blue bit?

    IT’S A BORG SPHERE! Here’s a close-up image:

    Borg Sphere I

  15. @IVAN3MAN

    Wait for it… wait for it…

    I shiver with antici—pation.

  16. olderwithmoreinsurance

    @Dan Fischer : you’re exactly right but you beat me to it! @Messier Tidy Upper : good job on actually making things tidier.

  17. Matt T

    This is by far the coolest thing I have read this week.

  18. LSandman24

    @ Todd W. (#16)

    At a measly 63 light years away, that puts this nowhere near the galaxy of Transylvania. We are safe, for the time being, of our tires being blown out and being forced to walk to a creepy castle, in the rain, and forced to endure “more folk dancing.” :-D

  19. cerberus40
  20. Grand Lunar

    Pretty cool, Phil!

    I wonder how long before this becomes fairly common, and we start imaging the rest of the other exoplanets we know of.
    And how many others might we find?
    And how long until we find Gallifry?

  21. Charles Evo

    This might be an odd question, but, how do they know that it’s the same planet on the right side of the star that earlier was on the left?

    I ask this because the orbit, we’re told, is elliptical, but perhaps another planet that is a bit farther out from the star could also explain this.

    Is it because the mass of the planet is so great that no other planet could possibly exist near enough to it, and hence the planet’s farther distance from the sun on the right side of the star could only be explained by an elliptical orbit of the same planet as seen on the left?

  22. Jim Blackwell

    Wow, Don, Sally, et al. Haven’t heard those names in a long time ! I remember those days…

  23. Charles Evo:
    This is all told in great detail in the full paper which describes the steps in the discovery clearly: At first (2003) they had only a point of light that could have been a background star, but then it was gone, and now (Oct. to Dec. 2009) there is a point of light on the other side of Beta Pic.

    From the gravitational effects on the disk it’s pretty clear that the planet’s orbit should be near-circular (as I pointed out earlier; Phil had misread the ESO visual which is a bit misleading indeed) – and once you know that, everything fits together neatly, including the disk warping. This is one of these great moments in science, when you say: Yeah, ours is the method to go by …

  24. frunobulax

    @ 5. Todd W.
    What “black circle”? I don’t see any black circle. You might have thought you saw a black circle, but it was a mistake anyone could make. Completely understandable. Say, that’s a lovely wife and a cute set of kids you’ve got there. It would be a shame if anything awful should happen to them. C’mon, let’s the two of us have a coupla drinks and talk things over.

  25. I looked up Beta Pictoris, and found that it’s almost precisely on the opposite side of the sky to 30 Draconis. To within an impressive resolution. If the Beta Pictoris aliens ever go to war with the 30 Draconis aliens, we’re going to be in trouble.

  26. jcm

    Cool. But no Little Green Men (LGM) yet!

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    @17. olderwithmoreinsurance Says:

    … @Messier Tidy Upper : good job on actually making things tidier.

    Thanks – my pleasure. I love this stuff! Thinking about, imagining and learning about planets around other stars is something that has fascinated and amazed me, all my life. :-)

    @13. lordbubonicus Says:

    @Messier Tidy Upper: Wolszczan and Frail’s paper was published in Nature in 1992. I don’t know when the observations were made, but that’s why we normally state that the first exoplanets were discovered in 1992.

    The paper was announced on 9th January 1992 after a couple of years of work which started in about May 1990. (Source : Pages 108-109, New Worlds in the Cosmos – the discovery of exoplanets Michel Mayor & Pierre-Yves Frei, Cambtridge UniversityPress, 2003.) So I guess it is fair to say either 1991 or 1992. :-)

    Interestingly enough, there is also a sub-stellar object discovered in 1988 around HD 114762 by a team led by David Latham that may be either a planet or a brown dwarf that could also stake a claim as the first exoplanet ever discovered. (Pages 136-137, Mayor &Frei, 2003.)

    As far as a solid planetary mass estimate goes, unfortunately we’re still not there yet. The exoplanet encyclopedia still only has Msini listed, and that’s kept very well up to date.

    Thanks. :-)

    Of course, the problem is that we only get a minimum mass doesn’t we – so can we be sure Beta Pic b isn’t a brown dwarf?

    @ 28. Adrian Morgan Says:

    I looked up Beta Pictoris, and found that it’s almost precisely on the opposite side of the sky to 30 Draconis. To within an impressive resolution. If the Beta Pictoris aliens ever go to war with the 30 Draconis aliens, we’re going to be in trouble.

    30 Draconis eh? I hadn’t heard of that one – thanks. :-)

    Unfortunately, the prospects for sentient beings evolving now or in the future on the planet(s) and moons of Beta Pictoris are remote. It is, almost certainly, the wrong sort of star to host life given its shorter stellar lifespan as a result of its higher mass. Most probably, Sirian or A type stars (eg. Beta Pictoris which is a type A3-A5 V main-sequence star) don’t live long enough for intelligent life to evolve.

    Bacterial or one-celled life possibly and very primitive cretaures (think trilobites, early reptiles) maybe are an outside chance but remember that for most of life’s history on Earth intelligent life just wasn’t around. If memories of Carl Sagan are correct, if we put all of Erath’s history into a year then Humans would have emerged in the last minute or so before midnight on December 31st and even the dinosaurs only came into existence around mid-year in that metaphor.

    Also there is likely to be a lot of debris around Beta Pictoris with its planets still forming and still enduring colossal and frequent comet and asteroid impact events as bad as those that left their scars on our Moon.

    (Or even as bad as that that *formed* our Moon come to think of it. ;-) )

  28. Anonymous Coward

    I thought poison ivy and poison oak used the same irritant?

  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    For more (& my source for the A3 to A5 V main-sequence classification noted above) see Kaler’s stars website for Beta Pictoris here :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/betapic.html

    Which may be somewhat out of date as it notes the planet remains “unconfirmed” although it also hints that :

    From its infrared brightness, Beta Pic b should have a mass of around 8 times that of the Jupiter. Orbital motion has not yet been seen. There is a speculation that this planet may have caused a transit event in 1981.

    If the latter is true and Beta Pictoris b turns out to be a transiting exoplanet we might hopefully be able to learn heaps more about this world using information calculated & observed from that transit – although we may also have to wait years for the next transit given the orbital period is likely to be very long indeed.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    Me # 30 :

    Interestingly enough, there is also a sub-stellar object discovered in 1988 around HD 114762 by a team led by David Latham that may be either a planet or a brown dwarf that could also stake a claim as the first exoplanet ever discovered.

    D’oh! Turns out I’m arguably a year out here too – 1989 not 1988 according to Wikipedia
    – see :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HD_114762_b

    Its probably a brown dwarf around the Procyonese or sun-like type F9 V star – just a bit hotter & brighter than our Sun – but if the lower mass range turns out to be correct then this one could be the first extra-solar planet ever detected – albeit not confirmed for decades. Then again, if its actually at the highest mass of the possible range then HD 114762 b might be a red dwarf star rather a brown dwarf or exoplanet.

    So HD 114762 to be or not to be? Mass is the question! ;-)

    – With apologies to Shakespeare and Hamlet for that one.

  31. Just me

    WOW! WOW! WOW!

    Nothing else to say for now. Can’t… form… words…

  32. me

    > even the dinosaurs only came into existence around mid-year in that metaphor.

    Towards midwinter, I think.
    Life appeared at the half-way mark ( 2bn y.a. )
    Dinos were a few weeks into December, at 15/16ths in, about 1/4bn years ago.

    Growing up in the universe does it in terms of distances.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHoxZF3ZgTo

  33. MarkW

    The “Earth in a Year” metaphor is more compact than you think Messier Tidy Upper. If we take 4.5Gya as the start of the year and the present as the end, the start of the Triassic (when dinosaurs first evolved) was some time on the 11th of December, and the K-T extinction event was early on the 26th.

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Mark W. : Thanks. :-)

    Plus YIKES!

    I knew it was surprisingly late into the Earth-History-Metaphorical-Year and that for a large chunk of the EHMY the only life was at the bacterial level but I didn’t quite realise it was *that* late.

    Please do you (or anyone else willing) have a link or quote from the original that you could share here by any chance?

    This EHMY idea was from Carl Sagan in the Cosmos series wasn’t it?

    Humans enter the picture at one minute to midnight on New Year’s Eve or so still do they?
    Or is that one second? ;-)

    (Which I’ve read & seen but, alas, don’t have my own copy to check with. )

  35. amphiox

    Life appeared at the half-way mark ( 2bn y.a. )

    The earliest evidence of life on earth is about 3.8bn y.a. By 3.4bn y.a. signs of prokaryotic life were obvious.

    The earliest trace evidence of possible eukaryotic life was 2.8bn y.a. or so. The earliest confirmed evidence of eukaryotic life was about 2bn y.a.

    And of course, the infamous Cambrian “explosion” was about 0.53bn y.a.

  36. CP

    Arrows in the diagram would be helpful; I’m having a hard time figuring out what to look at from your prose description alone. Sorry to be dense.

  37. andy

    The eccentricity is constrained to be low by observations of the presence of various belts in the inner part of the dust disc: overly high eccentricities would disrupt the nearby planetesimal belts. Similar constraints have been made for the planet Epsilon Eridani b, which has to be in a near-circular orbit to avoid disrupting the innermost of that system’s asteroid belts, despite radial velocity and astrometric data which suggests an eccentric orbit.

    As for the mass of this planet, we’ve only got theoretical models of planetary evolution to rely on to match the observed appearance of the planet. The commonly-used radial velocity method doesn’t work well on A-type stars like Beta Pictoris (few spectral lines and large rotational velocities prevent this), so I guess we have to rely on future astrometric measurements. I guess there will be quite a bit of effort put into this as the planet would provide some valuable calibration for the evolutionary models.

    Incidentally if the 1981 transit is genuine, the implied size of Beta Pictoris b would be significantly larger than expected, which suggests that there might be an extensive ring system around the planet.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    The earliest trace evidence of possible eukaryotic life was 2.8bn y.a. or so. The earliest confirmed evidence of eukaryotic life was about 2bn y.a.

    And of course, the infamous Cambrian “explosion” was about 0.53bn y.a.

    That is contested, or at least should be.

    – Trace evidence:
    I really don’t get this one. Evidence used are steranes, which morphs from sterols as I understand it. But there are IIRC 4 (!) classes of prokaryotes that produce sterols. Actinobacteria even produce cholesterols like we do.

    There seems to be no testable trace evidence for eukaryotes specifically.

    [The taken out, I believe, is to give up actual testability and assume horizontal gene transfer from eukaryotes. But we now know that HGT is ~ 1 % of genes in prokaryotes, seldom metabolic and never, I believe, metabolic chains which would be very hard to do. And to assume what destroys the test…]

    – Fossil evidence:
    Likewise, if we look into papers of Knoll, Javaux, et cetera, they claim to test against a set of criteria which AFAIK anyone can be, and have been, produced by bacteria. For example: Several cell membranes. But cyanobacteria do that. Large vesicles. Again, specialized bacteria or cyanobacteria cluster sheaths can be large. Et cetera.

    – Circumstantial evidence:
    Genetic clock estimates, earlier from single genes. But those can’t produce latest (i.e. population) division, and are prone to rate changes over deep time. For example, Neanderthal-sapiens division is now (“whole” genome!) clock dated to 1 Ma and then adjusted to 0.9 Ma IIRC by extra measures, but the actual division between the populations is claimed to be somewhere around 0.4-0.6 Ma I believe.

    Unambiguous eukaryotes seems to be found within 1 Ga, which would test well against clock estimates that need to be slashed by a factor 2-3 like for known species.

    The first megafossils (Nimbia occlusa, Twitya Formation, up to 60 mm) is ~ 0.61 Ga. ~ 300 – 400 My seems like a reasonable time for eukaryotes to evolve multicellulars, compared to the ~ 100 My the Edicarian biota used to evolve all the Cambrian classes which we see even today.

  39. Ahhh… okay. I was a little confused, but then I went back and re-read: from one side to the other. The first exoplanet imaged in visible light was Fomalhaut b, and I was checking to see if that discovery had been refuted, but I guess I missed the qualification in this story.

  40. Brian Too

    I have a question on the margins of this discussion. I remember a few years back, reading about how ALL of the planet finding methods we have, were biased towards finding large planets close to their host stars. The so-called “hot jupiters”.

    My impression is that this remains so. Seems to me that the gravitational wobbling and light occlusion methods are strongly biased towards finding big masses close to the parent star.

    Therefore, when people (including astronomers) express surprise at the strange worlds & systems we detect, so unlike our own, it’s perhaps, ah, premature? naive? to be surprised. What we are looking at is the result of unintentional sample bias.

    Of course if the planetary evolution models didn’t, at one time, allow for hot jupiters at all, that’s a bit more understandable. Nevertheless the point remains. We do not detect solar systems like our own, mainly because the large planetary masses in our system have orbital periods in the range of years to decades.

    Or am I behind the times? Exoplanet research is moving so fast these days I can’t keep up.

  41. Alberto466

    So far, you got 115 hits at Digg.
    My Digg friend mandarage wrote:
    I love how he wrote this with a kind of breathless enthusiasm, like a really hyper and excited kid who can’t get his thoughts out fast enough.
    Exodust wrote:
    I love this blog. Badastronomy rules.
    I commented:
    I think this is a very good site too. Let us all write Phil Plait a note to let him know people do appreciate what he writes.
    Contact HIM: The Bad Astronomer “at” gmail “dot” com
    Mr. Plait, need I say any more? More pics, please…

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