Astronomers break new ground to observe ‘super-Jupiter' exoplanet

By combining the light from four telescopes, scientists have been able to study the atmosphere of a world 129 light years away.

Astronomers have made the first direct observations of a planet outside the solar system using a technique that combines the light from multiple telescopes.

The “super-Jupiter” 129 light years from Earth was found to have a stormy atmosphere with swirling clouds of iron and silicate.

Usually scientists have to employ indirect methods to study exoplanets because of the blinding light of their stars.

The four telescopes that make up the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at Paranal, Chile (ESO/PA)

On this occasion, they used a technique called optical interferometry that allowed four telescopes to work as one.

The result was an imaging system sensitive enough to disentangle light from the planet and its parent star.

Findings from Gravity, an instrument that combines four light beams from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) in Chile, appear in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The planet, known as HR8799e, was discovered in 2010 orbiting a star in the Pegasus constellation.

It is a world unlike any found in our own solar system that is both more massive and much younger than any planet orbiting the sun.

Sylvestre Lacour, from the Paris Observatory in France and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, said: “Our observations suggest a ball of gas illuminated from the interior, with rays of warm light swirling through stormy patches of dark clouds.

“Convection moves around the clouds of silicate and iron particles, which disaggregate and rain down into the interior.

“This paints a picture of a dynamic atmosphere of a giant exoplanet at birth, undergoing complex physical and chemical processes.”

Previous Gravity achievements include last year’s observation of gas swirling at 30% the speed of light just outside the massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

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