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Astronomers Discover New Planet?

May 28, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope say they have, for the first time, directly seen and photographed a planet outside our solar system, a discovery one scientist called ``unbelievably exciting.″

In the past several years, various astronomy teams have been able to infer the existence of planets around other stars through indirect means, such as detecting gravitational wobbles.

But this is the first picture that appears to show direct evidence of the existence of a planet outside the solar system, NASA officials said.

Scientists at NASA said the sighting challenges conventional theories about the birth and evolution of planets, and offers new insights into the formation of the solar system.

The object, found within a star-forming region in the constellation Taurus, is about 450 light years away from Earth and was flung about 130 billion miles from two stars that ejected it. A light year is about 6 trillion miles.

``The results don’t directly tell us about the presence of any terrestrial planets like Earth,″ Susan Terebey of the Extrasolar Research Corporation in Pasadena, Calif., whose team used the Hubble Space Telescope to make the discovery, said in a news release. ``However, we believe gas giants do influence the formation of much smaller rocky planets.″

The object is two to three times the size of Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. ``This observation pushes back the clock on planet formation,″ Terebey said. ``This provides valuable new clues to the origin of our solar system.″

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Terebey believed the planet may have been flung into deep space by a gravitational ``slingshot″ from its parent stars. Future observations call for additional photos at a later date to confirm the object’s movement across the sky and to determine that it is a planet and not a dwarf star.

``This is unbelievably exciting, seeing a possible extrasolar planet for the first time,″ said astrophysicist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. ``This is a major, unprecedented observation.″

NASA said that until the sighting, all the detected planets have been orbiting middle-aged stars. ``The Hubble observation is the first peek at a young planet,″ the space agency said.

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