Just in time for Halloween, astronomers have announced that ‘zombie planet’ Fomalhaut b is, after all, real. The news came after new data from the Hubble Telescope was analyzed by scientists, whose findings contradicted last year’s announcement that the planet, discovered in 2008, did not exist. So, why the about-face?
Back in 2008, it was announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had made history in observing the first extrasolar planet in visual light. The planet was orbiting bright star Fomalhaut, alpha Pisces Australis (the Southern Fish), which is located about 25 light years away from Earth. As early as 2005 it was suspected that there was a planet around Fomalhaut as there were unexpected irregularities with a dusty orbiting the star that could only be explained by the presence of a planet. While the photograph was taken in May, NASA did not release the image until November, only after further analysis confirmed that the planet was indeed real.
Last year, further observations of the planet were made in the infrared. Problem: the planet did not appear in the imagery at a temperature predicted. Explanation: the planet did not exist, but was merely a trick of light captured in a picture. Suddenly, as quickly as it appeared, Fomalhaut b disappeared into the cosmic dark.
Now, a team led by Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the University of Toronto and formerly of the NASA Goddard Center, has reevaluated old data from the Hubble and has reconfirmed the original 2008 findings, sort of.
Speaking on his tram’s work, Currie stated that “our results seriously challenge the original discovery paper, they do so in a way that actually makes the object’s interpretation much cleaner and leaves intact the core conclusion, that Fomalhaut b is indeed a massive planet.”
So, what’s new?
When first announced in 2008, Fomalhaut b was declared to be a Jupiter-sized planet. Now, looking at old data from Hubble, Currie’s team easily found the planet in the visual as well as ultraviolet wavelengths, but, like the 2011 team that concluded the planet was merely an optical illusion, couldn’t locate it in the infrared. However, knowing that the planet was visible in the visible and ultraviolet wavelengths, there had to be another reason why it was not being seen in the infrared: it was smaller than originally thought.
Bottom line: Fomalhaut b is back from the dead, if you will, but is still very mysterious. The good news: Fomalhaut was imaged by another team of scientists in May and the new data is currently being analyzed and should be published in the near future. Who knows, with some luck, this new research may reveal more information about the phantom planet Fomalhaut b.
Now, on the practical level, while it’s impossible to see Fomalhaut b, one can see Fomalhaut the star. Where to look? Look low in the Southern sky just after dark and for the only bright star in that region of sky, Fomalhaut. As always, if you’re planning on doing some stargazing, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for an even more up-to date, hour-by-hour forecast, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock to see what the night will bring.
For more info:
Hit the ‘subscribe’ button for automatic email updates when I write something new!
Want to read more of my stuff? Check out my other Examiner columns!
Cleveland Astronomy Examiner
Cleveland Photography Examiner
Want even more? Check out my personal website:
Bodzash Photography & Astronomy