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My god, it’s full of…

stars planets…

Although you almost certainly didn’t feel it, the universe – or at least our understanding of it, and our place in it – shifted earlier today, just a few hours ago actually, when two different teams of astronomers released to the world images they had taken of two stars. Here they are… don’t worry if they make no sense I’ll explain why they’re so important soon. For now, just look at them, ok?

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fig2

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking… “BIG DEAL!!” Well, yes, it is a big deal actually, because what you just looked at were truly – and I don’t use this term lightly here – historic images, because they actually show planets in orbit around alien stars. Yes, that’s right. Those are the first images IN HISTORY to definitely show planets circling stars beyond our own sun. There have been suspects before, but nothing definite, and until today every image that definitely “showed” a planet in orbit around another star was a graph or a chart showing either some kind of gravitational tug or pull on the star, or an apparrent dimming of its light as a planet passed between it and us, here on Earth. No. These images are the real thing, the Real Deal.

It’s no exaggeration to say that those images are nothing less than the first portraits of alien solar systems taken by mankind.

At the top there is an image of the well-known southern star Fomalhaut, taken by the famous (and recently ill) Hubble Space Telescope. beneath it is an image taken by the Gemini telescopes. The Hubble one is essentially a “visual light” image, the Gemini one is an infra-red image, so you’re essentially looking at heat sources there. Look closely and you’ll see little dots or spots of light hugging close to the stars. These are the planets. Of course, we already knew that several hundred stars “out there” have their own planets in orbit around them, but those worlds have all been ‘detected’ – and followed – using mathematics and numbers rather than by looking directly at them and seeing their own light, or at least light reflected off them. These new planets have not just been detected, they’ve been seen, and their pictures have been taken the old fashioned way, by telescopes, and cameras, and by people looking closely at the pictures and thinking “Hang on a minute… what’s that..?”

The full story behind these images is long and complicated, and there’s absolutely no point in me trying to cut it down into bitesize chunks when you can just go to the websites of the planets’ discoverers and read there exactly what happened. So, go to these two websites to read the fascinating stories behind these amazing pictures:

http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/fomalhaut.html (Hubble image)

http://www.gemini.edu/node/11151 (Gemini image)

So, that’s the science behind the pictures. Pretty impressive. But what’s even more impressive to me about these pictures is what they represent – a shift in our perception of the universe, and our place in it. Astronomy itself changed today. Yesterday we had no photographs of any planets apart from the ones in our own solar system. Today we do, it’s as simple as that. Yesterday extra-solar planets were just data points on graphs, ticks on charts or rows of numbers on a table. Today we can look at images of alien stars and see alien worlds in orbit around them. Tonight, wherever you live, after the Sun has set you can go outside, look up into the night sky, and see a star that is the “sun” to alien planets, planets we have pictures of! That’s huge, literally huge.

So, take a look at those pictures again, but don’t just glance at them, look at them properly, stare into them. Those images mean something, they’re already historically significant images, up there with the first Viking lander images of Mars’ surface and the Hubble Deep Field. Those images will be in every single history-of-astronomy book written after today, they’re that important.

Make no mistake about it, this is a momentous day, not just for astronomy, but for science itself. We are all very lucky to be around at the time when the first images of extra-solar planets were taken. In centuries to come, when mighty, powerful starships fly from Earth to these faraway alien worlds, their crews will have those very same images with them, to look at and inspire them. When, one day, the first settlers from Earth arrive in these alien solar systems they’ll have those very same images with them, too, and they’ll carry them into orbit around the worlds themselves, and, looking down at their clouds and moons will marvel at how we, here, today, were able to take their portaits.

Look up at the sky tonight, if it’s clear where you live, and hold this thought: you live, and work, beneath a sky that’s not just full of stars, but full of planets, too… What wonderful, glorious, dizzying times we live in, when we have spacecraft exploring the polar wastes of Mars, men and women living onboard a space station and telescopes taking portraits of planets way out in the depths of space…!

But it’s going to get even better. One day – maybe twenty, maybe ten, maybe just a few – years from now, a telescope, somewhere, will take an image like this…

ex-e1

… and scientists zooming in on a fuzzy point of light in the image will see this….

ee

… a blue planet, with its own surging cobalt oceans, billowing pillows of white cloud and continents of green, brown and gold.. an alien Earth, bathing in the light of an alien star, a Home In Waiting for Mankind…

Yesterday that image was just a Hope, with one foot in Wishful Thinking and the other in science fiction. Today, that image is closer. Much closer.

Enjoy today, and go to bed knowing that things are different now.

(Much more on this story over at Phil Plait’s BAD ASTRONOMY blog…)

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