Astronomers unveil ‘new’ exoplanet

Written by By Jon Brodkin, CNN

This is the first time a major astronomical object has been seen in a completely new form, with no environmental modification. That’s thanks to a band of 27 exoplanets that a team of astronomers tracking Hubble Space Telescope revealed in the early hours of this morning.

In a unique alignment, the telescope witnessed the entire event in real time, accompanied by the tantalizing sounds of the stars ripping through the stellar quasar.

The Kepler Mission — launched in 2009 — pointed the telescope at a distant quasar called AGN 52-Z1. In plain terms, it tracked the passage of an 18-hour, billion-ton pulsar, an object created when a star explodes in a black hole.

According to SETI Research, AGN 52-Z1 is one of the most powerful and longest-living pulsars in the universe. Even more exciting, it lies eight billion light-years away from the Sun.

Sometimes a planet appears in a new form when you probe further, says Kamran Shazman , a senior astronomer for the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, which runs the mission for NASA.

“The question was how many planets are orbiting that pulsar,” he said in a statement. “Most stars, including our own, spew out smaller clouds of gas called disks around them as they spin around the center of their galaxy. Some of those disks may have a bit of dust or other particles, but those grains may contain simple carbon and hydrogen gas — the components of planets.”

A pic of a star that just went off. Image credit: NASA/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/C. Heller/NRAO/AUI/NSF/L. Coe

In fact, this pulsar is unusually populous; its eight-hour rotation period and its tendency to sport a large sunlike star make it an ideal sampling site for exoplanet-hunting. So imagine the scientists’ astonishment when the dust predicted by their predictions coalesced into actual planet candidates.

“We were thinking that it should be these molecular cloud formations that could be forming, with periodic cosmic bombardments,” said Shazman. “It seemed fantastic to see planets, at least some of them multiple times, and to have the quasar with its star rotate 24 times in one minute.”

Not only does AGN 52-Z1 orbit two suns but two other solar systems have been found orbiting the quasar: another 16 months later and the same distance away, but smaller in mass.

Perhaps most impressive of all, astronomers have calculated that the team witnessed a stellar explosion in one of the exoplanets, which may have resulted in their formation. What’s more, according to STScI scientists, one of these worlds is now entering the age of 4 billion years. That means it could have existed as far back as 4 billion years ago.

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