WASHINGTON Earth seems to have its first fuzzy photos of alien planets outside our solar system, images captured by two teams of astronomers.
The pictures show four likely planets that appear as specks of white, nearly indecipherable except to the most eagle-eyed experts. All are trillions of miles away — three of them orbiting the same star, and the fourth circling a different star.
None of the four giant gaseous planets are remotely habitable or remotely like Earth. But they raise the possibility of others more hospitable.
Its only a matter of time before `we get a dot thats blue and Earthlike,` said astronomer Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Lab. He led one of the two teams of photographers.
`It is a step on that road to understand if there are other planets like Earth and potentially life out there,` he said.
Macintoshs team used two ground-based telescopes, while the second team relied on photos from the 18-year-old Hubble Space Telescope to gather images of the exoplanets — planets that dont circle our sun. The research from both teams was published in Thursdays online edition of the journal Science.
NASAs space sciences chief Ed Weiler said the actual photos are important. He compared it to a hunt for elusive elephants `For years weve been hearing the elephants, finding the tracks, seeing the trees knocked down by them, but weve never been able to snap a picture. Now we have a picture.`
The planet discovered by Hubble is one of the smallest exoplanets found yet. Its somewhere between the size of Neptune and three times bigger than Jupiter. And it may have a Saturn-like ring.
It circles the star Fomalhaut, pronounced FUM-al-HUT, which is Arabic for `mouth of the fish.` Its in the constellation Piscis Austrinus and is relatively close by — a mere 148 trillion miles away, practically a next-door neighbor by galactic standards. The planets temperature is around 260 degrees, but thats cool by comparison to other exoplanets.
The team led by Macintosh at Lawrence Livermore found its planets a little earlier, spotting the first one in 2007, but taking extra time to confirm the trio of planets circling a star in the Pegasus constellation. The star is about 767 trillion miles away, but visible with binoculars. Its called HR 8799, and the three planets orbiting it are seven to 10 times larger than Jupiter, Macintosh said.