Apr 8, 2009 | 5
Mission controllers last night sent a command to the Kepler spacecraft, NASA's unprecedented planet hunter launched last month, to eject its dust cover, effectively opening the telescope to the heavens.
Kepler, now some two million miles (three million kilometers) from Earth, will trail our planet in an orbit around the sun, observing a patch of sky for three-plus years in search of possible companion planets around a group of 100,000 stars. The spacecraft bears the largest space-borne camera ever, a photometer composed of 42 charge-coupled devices (CCDs), to monitor those stars for periodic dips in stellar brightness that occur as orbiting planets block a portion of the stars' light from Kepler's view.
Apr 3, 2009 | 1
Two teams of astronomers made headlines in November after announcing they had photographed planets orbiting regular stars other than our own sun. (Such bodies are known as extrasolar planets, or exoplanets.) One of those planets, Fomalhaut b, the companion to a star called Fomalhaut some 25 light-years away, was spotted by the Hubble Space Telescope; a star known as HR 8799, nearly 130 light-years distant, was found by ground-based observations to harbor a system of at least three planets.
Now reprocessed images taken by Hubble in October 1998 show that the space-based observatory had picked up the signal of the outermost of HR 8799's planets (white dot at lower right in image) 10 years prior to that announcement. Astronomer David Lafrenière, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto and a member of the team that found the planets around HR 8799 last year, led the archival work. In a statement, he credited an improved image-processing technique that he and colleagues developed for uncovering the hidden planet, saying it can now be used "to see planets that are one-tenth the brightness of what could be detected before with Hubble."
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