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Very Large Telescope captures direct images of bright exoplanet
Chile's Very Large Telescope captures direct images of a bright, Jupiter-like exoplanet after data from two European Space Agency satellites showed a gravitational pull on the planet's host star, AF Leporis. Photo courtesy of ESO/Mesa, De Rosa et al.
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Very Large Telescope captures direct images of bright exoplanet
by Sheri Walsh
Washington DC (UPI) Feb 20, 2023

Chile's Very Large Telescope has captured direct images of a bright, Jupiter-like exoplanet after data from two European Space Agency satellites showed a gravitational pull on the planet's host star.

The European Southern Observatory released the photographs Monday, showing what the observatory called the lightest ever exoplanet. The planet orbits the young star AF Leporis, in the constellation Lepus, some 87.5 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers, examining data from the European Space Agency's Hipparcos and Gaia space telescopes, found a tug in the star's orbit, which suggested a very large planet.

"The two teams found that the star AF Leporis exhibited such a disturbed trajectory, a telltale sign that a planet could be hiding there," ESO, which operates the Very Large Telescope, wrote in a statement. "Planets exert a gravitational tug on their host stars, perturbing their trajectory on the sky."

The teams used VLT's adaptive optics system called SPHERE "which corrects the blurring caused by atmospheric turbulence" and "also blocks the light from the star with a special mask, revealing the planet next to it," according to ESO.

A video, released by ESO on Monday, shows infrared observations of the large planet which can be seen as the bright source toward the center-left of the image.

"Molecules in the atmosphere of this planet absorb light at different colors or wavelengths, which makes the planet appear brighter or fainter as the video scans through different wavelengths," ESO said.

The two teams of astronomers revealed the exoplanet is about four to six times the size of Jupiter and is orbiting AF Leporis at about the same distance as Saturn orbits the sun.

Since exoplanets are dimmer than their host stars, photographing them is extremely difficult especially if they are smaller, ESO said.

As of April of 2020, direct imaging has captured 50 exoplanets, but only as the planets pass in front of and dim their parent star, according to The Planetary Society, which is studying more than 5,300 confirmed exoplanets.

While the photographed exoplanet appears to be much larger than Jupiter, AF Leporis is about the same size and temperature as the sun and has a disk of debris similar to the solar system's Kuiper Belt, ESO wrote in its statement.

"Since the AF Leporis system is only 24 million years old -- about 200 times younger than the sun -- further studies of this system can shed light on how our solar system was formed."

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