Gallery of exoplanets: real pictures of alien worlds

By Phil Plait | October 18, 2010 7:00 am

[Click the picture or use the slider to see the next image.]

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Comments (41)

  1. Thanks so much for this overview. Great stuff.

  2. I remember hearing about exoplanets 15 years ago it’s amazing how far the field has progressed so far. The only problem is that I have nothing to do with it.

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    Love this gallery & your write-up here,BA. I’ll second (#1) Squidocto there. Thanks. :-)

    The whole discovery of exoplanets area that has opened up in the past few decades since the pulsar planets were confirmed around PSR B 1257+12 utterly fascinates and enthralls me. I wish exoplanet discoveries got more attention and more understanding in the mainstream media. We’re now constantly finding all these remarkable, strange new found worlds & learning so much. This whole new field of astronomy still blows me away. :-D

  4. Messier Tidy Upper

    Another directly imaged exoplanet (well candidate one – it might be a brown dwarf) is GQ Lupi :

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

    which is one of several contenders for the title of first ever imaged exoplanet.

    Another contender for that is Ab Pictoris b :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AB_Pictoris_b#AB_Pictoris_b

    Although again this is possibly instead a brown dwarf.

    GQ Lupi b & AB Pictoris b : are rival claimants to the “first exoplanet imaged” title, GQ Lupi b which could be anywhere from 1 to 42 Jupiter masses is extremely young and orbits not a fully formed star but rather a protostar at a distance of 100 AU. Given the uncertainties in its mass and nature, its claim is dubious but it was imaged earlier than 2M1207 b – also by the ESO’s Yepun scope. Third claimant for that “first exoplanet imaged” title, AB Pictoris b is a very distant, object right on the brown dwarf-exoplanet borderline orbiting a 30 million year old K2 orange dwarf star at the vast distance of 250 AU. It is most likely a brown dwarf but was imaged earliest of the three – in March 2003.

    (Compiled from various sources and news reports, online & print magazines.)

    What I also really love is that we also know of several bright stars that anyone can see in the sky without optical aid have exoplanets incl. Fomalhaut and also :

    1. Pollux – the seventeenth brightest star in the sky with a superjovian world I’ve dubbed “Polydeuces” with three times Jove’s mass orbiting it in a circular 590 day orbit at a distance of 1 & 1/2 AU. Pollux is an orange giant now but it began its life with 1.8 solar mass making it a Sirian or Procyonese A or F V type star originally.

    2. Ain or Oculus Borealis or Espilon Tauri – the other Bulls eye opposite Aldbearan in the Hyades. A G9 III yellow giant star, Ain weighs in at 2.7 solar masses so it started off as a star like Vega or maybe Regulus. This makes it the most massive (then at least – still I think also?) star to boast a planet and also the first planet found in an open cluster. Ain or Epsilon Tauri’s exoplanet contains 7.6 times Jupiter-masses and orbits its dying golden giant in 595 days (1.63 years) at an average distance of 1.9 AU.

    &

    3. Epsilon Eridani b : The nearest star with an exoplanet – at least one & maybe two planets orbit, this a K2 type orange dwarf which is the tenth nearest star to our Sun at a distance of 10 and half lightyears. Epsilon Eridani b has been precisely measured to be 1.5 Jupiter masses and is in an eccentric elongated orbit ranging from as close as Earth’s position to as far as Jupiters from its cooler and younger sun. (See Astronomy magazine article Dec. 2007 by Ray Villard -”Does life exist on this exoplanet?” Short answer – probably not but maybe a remote chance of it developing one day on a moon of Epsilon Eri. b! Also Ken Croswell wrote another article for ‘Astronomy’ magazine on it in December 1995.)

    (Also see James Kaler’s superb Stellar website & esp. his “planet Project” page for details.)

    Among many others such as Errai (Gamma Cephei), Upsilon Andromedae, Mu Arae, etc …

    There’s something really special I think in being able to go outside and see a star and know it has a world(s) circling it that we’ve found through some incredible pieces of engineering ingenuity, persistent careful observation and sheer genius. :-)

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    PS. Jim Kaler’s “Planet Project” (one of my key sources for the above & a personal fave) page listing some exoplanet hosting unaided eye stars is linked here :

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

    Ken Croswell’s Dec. 95 ‘Astronomy’ mag article is titled “Epsilon Eridani : The Once & Future Sun” and is a great read if you can find a copy somewhere. :-)

    Ironically, when Frank Drake chose Epsilon Eridani & Tau Ceti for his pioneering SETI program targets “Project Ozma” :

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

    he made bad choices in that we now know Epsilon Eridani is too young a star & system (less than one billion years old) to host intelligent life & Tau Ceti is metal poor and thus may well not even have planets at all. :-(

    Although, curiously, Tau Ceti has apparently got a thick dusty disk around it see :

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

    So .. hmm .. maybe it can’t be ruled out after all? ;-)

  6. WJM

    That first one is a fake.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    Yes, we need really big, space based telescopes.

    Years ago I read a SciFi story that proposed building a multiple flat plate reflector thousands of kms in diameter. Each small plate was positioned by computer to form a more or less parabolic(I think) collector. Flat reflectors are cheap to produce but we’d need millions of them to build an efficient ‘scope of this size(like one pixel per plate). It could only be built from a space based industrial civilization( and LOTS of robots).

    Maybe THAT would let us directly image planets.

    Gary 7

  8. Mike

    #4 Messier Tidy Upper

    “there’s something really special….” I completely agree. Even if it’s unremarkable to the unaided eye, just knowing what you’re looking at makes a big difference.

    We were hosting Thanksgiving dinner a couple years ago and I herded everyone outside. The shuttle had just undocked from the space station and did a pass over Atlanta. Even though you are just looking at two white dots moving across the sky, everyone was in awe. Just knowing one was the shuttle and one was the space station and that they had just separated, everyone’s imagination could place themselves there. Everyone said “wow”. For two white dots.

    The next sky tour I give will definitely include some naked-eye stars with known–and now imaged–planets.

  9. AJ

    *splort*
    That was the sound of my mind being blown. It never ceases to amaze me how often astronomers are able to take ideas that seem like science fiction and turn them into reality.

    I’ve always loved space, and I wanted to be an astronomer when I was young (school and I tend not to get along, though), and yet even at my most imaginative, if someone had told me 20 years ago “Hey, astronomers are going to take pictures of planets around other stars,” I’m sure I would have rolled my eyes and attempted to explain to this silly grown-up the numerous obstacles that would make this a pipe dream :)

  10. NthDegree256

    WJM: You mean the one about which Phil says “The picture above is an artist’s drawing of the planet Gliese 581c. Until recently, the only tool we had to see alien planets was our imagination.”?

  11. Stellar blog Phil. When I was a kid looking up at the night sky this was the sort of stuff I dreamed about. Now it is an expanding reality, which is cool.

  12. andy

    Saying 2M1207b is “definitely a planet” is unfortunately incorrect. The object has a wide separation and an extremely high mass relative to the parent object, and thus probably formed like a binary star. The deuterium fusion criterion is not universally accepted: there are a number of scientists who say that the distinction should be based on how the object formed (this view gives IMHO a more sensible description of systems like Upsilon Andromedae A, where the middle planet is massive enough to have undergone deuterium fusion in its interior in the early stages of its evolution). In this view, 2M1207b is a brown dwarf like its parent, albeit a very low mass one.

    As for calling 1RXS 1609b the “coldest world” – remember, the primary heat source for a gas giant in the outer regions of a planetary system is internal heating, not how much energy it receives from its parent star. 1RXS 1609b is a young and massive planet, and has an estimated temperature of about 1800K.

  13. Jon Hanford

    @8 Gary Ansorge:

    “Yes, we need really big, space based telescopes….”

    Partially out of weight concerns, space based optical interferometers (using coronographs like that mentioned in the previous story) seem a more likely option, at least for exoplanet studies. Although currently unfunded, a mission like the Terrestrial Planet Finder( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrestrial_Planet_Finder ) seems feasible in the near term (check out the Top 10 target stars on that page, too!). Oh, and, space based interferometers could also be designed to be used for more than just exoplanet studies.

  14. Ed H.

    I like 1RXS 1609 b. It’s not as obviously “processed”, and you can see the star, so it looks like what you’d expect a picture of an exo-system to look like – a bit like looking at Jupiter/Saturn through a small telescope. You can see the main object, and you can just see the secondar(y|ies)

    @6 WJM: So it the last, if you couldn’t tell. :-P

    @13 NthDegree256: I’m pretty sure WJM meant it in obvious humor.

  15. Durand

    Very interesting, thanks!

  16. mike burkhart

    One question. Is anybody out there?

  17. WJM

    @NthDegree256, yeah, it’s totally photoshopped. :)

  18. Stewart Street

    I love seeing photos like this. It never fails to amaze me how much astronomy and astrophysics is accelerating our understanding of the glory and majesty that is our universe.

    I am, however, deeply saddened that I shall not live long enough to see these wonders in person…

  19. gruebait

    heh. I just got finished re-reading The Mote In God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand. There’s motes in eyes everywhere, it seems

  20. Crux Australis

    Phil, I’ll put a link to this post in our little astronomy newsletter. Love it!

  21. NthDegree256

    @WJM: If you turn up the contrast on the image, I bet you’ll find all of the aliens they photoshopped out of that Cassini photo the other week. They had to go somewhere, after all!

  22. Messier Tidy Upper

    @23. gruebait Says:

    heh. I just got finished re-reading The Mote In God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand. There’s motes in eyes everywhere, it seems.

    Ah but there’s a beam in your own! (Ouch!) ;-)

    @6. WJM Says:

    That first one is a fake.

    No, no, that one’s real as is the last one of HR8799 b. Hadn’t you heard about the new FTL spaceship we sent there!? The reason the others are just dots and not close ups of the exoplanets themselves is that the starship hasn’t got to those other ones yet! ;-)

    (I love the spaceart one’s myself. :- ) )

    @ 17. Ed H. : I’m pretty sure WJM meant it in obvious humor.

    That’s why you need to use the ;-) emoticon! ;-)

    @ 19. mike burkhart : One question. Is anybody out there?

    I’m out there! (Some would even say I’m very out there!) ;-)

    But I’m guessing that’s not the sense you were meaning ..

    @15. andy : Coldest planet? That’s Hoth! ;-)

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @15. andy Says:

    As for calling 1RXS 1609b the “coldest world” – remember, the primary heat source for a gas giant in the outer regions of a planetary system is internal heating, not how much energy it receives from its parent star. 1RXS 1609b is a young and massive planet, and has an estimated temperature of about 1800K.

    Good point. :-)

    Actually there is a “Hoth” exoplanet – its the popular nickname for OGLE-05-390 L b which is a small and – probably – rocky 5 mass exoplanet that was discovered by microlensing in Jan 2006 around a very distant red dwarf. It’s orbital period (a “year” a decade long) means this world is likely freezing cold and ice-covered leading to it being dubbed ‘Hoth’ by some online! I think this is also the most distant exoplanet ever discovered too at 21,500 light years away.

    Also I suggest that in our solar system we have far colder worlds such as Pluto, Eris, Sedna and the other ice dwarfs. ;-)

    Or, if you are unfairly prejudiced against ice dwarf type planets, instead accepting only gas giants and rock dwarfs as legitimate then Ouranos and Neptune are both colder than 1RXS 1609b as is Saturn. Come to think of it, all the planets in our solar system would be colder than 1RXS 1609b – even Venus! ;-)

    Point of fact, I’m pretty sure the coldest (natural) place ever known is one of the shadowed polar craters on our Moon.

  24. John Paradox

    Oh, Phil.. you have to see this video: PZ Myers FAILS at astronomy!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OaeJ-Dd_NJA

    via Andromedas Wake…

    J/P=?

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    which is a small and – probably – rocky 5 mass

    Oops that’s meant to be 5 earth mas exoplanet there.

    For more see :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb

    &

    http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/news/houseOfHorrors.cfm

    which has “Hoth” last on that list and states its the coldest exoplanet yet known.

    also see :

    http://www.extrasolar.net/mostinteresting.asp

    for another exoplanet gallery of sorts which is rather splendid. :-)

    The fact that we still haven’t officially named these new found worlds of other suns is a real pet gripe of mine. I think it hinders communication with the public and makes them harder to remember & think about.

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Thinking of exoplanetary record holders we also have these among others :

    Significant /record-holding & historic exoplanets :

    First ever & first pulsar planets – PSR B 1257+12 discovered in 1992.

    First sun-like star & Hot Jupiter – 51 Pegasi & “Bellopheron”, discovered October 1995.

    First Binary star with exoplanets & first eccentric exoJupiter – 16 Cygni discovered in Oct. 1996.

    Nearest star with exoplanet (s) – Epsilon Eridani ten & a ½ light years away. This is the tenth nearest star to our Sun and thethird nearest counting only stars that are viisble to the unaided eye. (Claims were made but unconfirmed for Lalande 21185 which is 8.3 ly off & is the 4th nearest system to ours.)

    Furthest star with an exoplanet(s) – OGLE 05- 390-L b 21,500 ly distant.

    Brightest star with an exoplanet – Pollux just barely over Fomalhaut, 17th & 18th brightest app. mag stars! Errai (Gamma Cephei) is a distant third.

    Star with the most exoplanets – Three way tie between HD 10180, 55 (aka Rho-1) Cancris & Gliese 581 with five each. A couple more exoplanets are likely but not certain around HD 10180 giving it a total of seven and claims of extra worlds for Gliese 581 (g & f) are now in doubt.

    Oldest exoplanet & only one so far in Globular cluster – PSR B 1620-26 b, the Methuselah planet or Genesis Planet inside the globular cluster Messier 4 near Antares.

    Most massive star with an exoplanet & the only so far in open cluster – Ain or Oculus Borealis (Epsilon Tauri) with 2.7 solar mass. Now an orange giant (K0 III) it began life 625 million years ago as an A-type star like Vega. Ain is visible just opposite Aldebaran in the Hyades marking the other eye of the celestial bull.

    Smallest exoplanet diameter for sun-like star – COROT-7 b formerly CoRoT exo-7b with 1.7 x Earth’s diameter (but a mass of 4~5 earths?) It also boasts the shortest orbital period of any known planet taking just 20 hours and practically brushing its stars surface. “Mustafar” would seem an apt name for it!

    Most eccentrically orbiting exoplanet : HD 80606 b the “Icarus planet / Comet orbit Planet” which has an eccentricity of 0.9336 comparable to Halley’s Comet and ranges from 0.03 to 0.88 AU. This means “Icarus” gets about as much sunlight as Earth experiences at its most distant aphelion part of its orbit and 800 times more sunlight than Earth at its closest perihelion point. Its sun is also called Struve 1341 B and is a G5 V yellow dwarf a bit dimmer, cooler and smaller than our star.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Oops I nearly forgot to add the hottest exoplanet record to the above list :

    HD 149026 b : Another transiting Hot Jupiter recently studied (mid 2007) by Spitzer and found to be not only the hottest exoplanet but also the blackest – blacker than charcoal! This is based on its extreme temperature of 2,040 degrees Celsius requiring lost of heat absorption and minimal heat reflecting. That temperature was calculated by measuring its infrared light taken by comparing the stars IR output before and during transits. HD 14926 b has 70-90 times the mass of Earth and orbits a star just a smidgin more massive than our Sun.

    As for the largest exoplanet, well there’s a problem there in that we run into the fuzzy brown dwarf / exoplanet line with those categories possibly overlapping and a fair number of objects that are boarderline brown dwarf / exoplanets. So that record category is uncertain far as I can tell.

    There is however the case of the “Balsawood planet” TrES-4 which is the record-holder for largest diameter being 70 % larger than Jupiter’s radius but with a density of just 0.2 grams per cubic centimeter making its density equivalent to balsawood and thus less dense than Saturn. If there was an ocean big enough to float this planet – like Saturn would do so. It would also sizzle being around, 1,330 degrees Celsius (1,600 Kelvin) from orbiting its star in 3 and half days. It was discovered through transiting and directly measured by a team from the Lowell Observatory as part of the Trans-Atlantic Exoplanet Survey (hence TrES) and presents a problem for the theorists being much larger than current models can explain. The Balsawood planet is 1,400 light years distant.

    The variety and strangeness and range of qualities detected in exoplanets is really pretty staggering. I love the way we’re discovering and learning so much more. :-)

    PS. If these record lists are wrong or out of date then please let me know -I’m trying to keep up but its a fast-changing field and there ar enew record-breaking finds made all the time.

    PPS. Does anyone know if there’s a dedicated site that has a running counter of every new exoplanet discovery – & a breakdown of their stats into :

    X number of Hot Jupiter “Pegasids”
    X number of Eccentric orbiters
    X number of exoNeptunes
    X number of “SuperEarth” / gas dwarf / intermediate 5- 12 earth mass exoplanets, etc ..

    somewhere by any chance?

  28. mfumbesi

    Full of win, I take that back it is full of awesomeness, this blog that is.

  29. John C

    Wow! Just simply – WOW!!!

  30. Misora

    you can read the data on this site Kepler and help them look! http://www.planethunters.org
    more addicting than angry birds!

  31. just so you know, i didn’t focus pn the cost and how many robots would be required i only fully put my attention on what is needed to be done to see exoplanets. First i think nasa should sent a robot or remote-controlled space ship all the way to alfa centari (witch i realize will take years depending on the technology available when attemped) once there NASA should have a telescope about two times the power of hubble come out the ship. then hubble (or whatever you name it, but you should name it xbox44 cause i posted it) outta get as good of pictures from alfa centari as they coukd form our solar system. (and one more thing, isnt there another name for “space”? it doesnt sound that scientific like how instead of saying, “I’m studying the planets.” you could say, “I’m studying astronomy,” ?)

  32. ryan

    How is it that the planets had not moved at all in 6 months? I would imagine that the planets would be in different positions from each other orbiting at different speeds. I am confused. The planets are in the same spots relative to each other. this is impossible. I think they are just stars.

  33. Greg In Austin

    @ryan,

    If you are referring to the image for Beta Pic b, its clear that from Oct 2009 to March 2010 the planet did move. Its not in the same location as before.

    Remember, we’re seeing the planet in an orbit that’s almost edge-on, not from the top.

    8)

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