Written by Frank Cotolo
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Topics: Scientists, planet

Monday, 2 May 2005

image for Planet outside solar system found, debated

NOMOKE, Oregon - Scientists say they have found a giant planet orbiting a distant star. One astronomer figures the planet is five times the mass of Jupiter, at least.

"It may be bigger," he said. "It may be twenty times the size of Mars or two hundred times the size of Mercury or eight times the size of Saturn or fifty-two times the size of Earth. It appears that big."

A team of European and American astronomers who all viewed the planet are convinced that this is the first time a planet outside of our solar system has been observed, though two women on the team claim they have smelled others.

The team saw the object in 2004. It was a faint blue speck of light shaped like a shovel, circling a dim brown dead star that was calculated to be more than 220 light-years away from Earth, close to a constellation called Hydra, which was the inspiration for a product to rival Oreo cookies. At the time, scientists only guessed the light was a planet, because others on the team said it could be the lens of the telescope was dirty.

Since the mid-1990s, scientists claim to have discovered more than 130 so-called extra-solar planets, but observing them directly has proved difficult. "We thought we saw some things," a scientist said, "and then we didn't think we saw anything and then we thought we some thing else and every thing out there began to look like a new planet. So we took a break and rested our eyes."

Recent images taken by the Extremely Big and Powerful Telescope in northern Chile show two objects bound by gravity and moving together, according to Chipwell Ungarian, an astronomer at the European Piles of Stuff Observatory, who led the team.

"Our new images are convincingly that of an object large enough to be a planet and too large to be, say, a mutant melon hurled into space by a super being. This is the first planet that has ever been witnessed outside of our solar system, not counting one time we all saw an image that appeared to be the late James Coco taking a bath." Ungarian said in a statement.

Added Stein Zelman, an astronomer also on the team but absent from meetings on Wednesdays due to taking driving lessons before he tests for a licence: "I'm more than 99 percent confident that this is a planet. Make that 99 point nine."

The team estimated the mass of the object, now called 2M1207b orbits a dead star known as 2M1207A. The team is currently searching for names to more easily identify the objects. So far, the names Kurt The Planet and Death Star have been suggested.

Linda Hikendapark, a professor of astronomy, cautioned against calling the object a planet. "The object being a planet is subject to a definition of the word planet. My suggestion is that the team get a good Webster's dictionary-not one of those new paperbacks but an old hardcover-and look up the word."

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