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Exoplanet Pictures, Exoplanet Images

Most exoplanets can only be detected indirectly and cannot be imaged. This is because of the relatively small sizes and large distances from Earth, and also because the light from the host star usually swamps any signal from an orbiting planet. You can find out how many exoplanets have been detected by direct imaging at The Visual Exoplanet Catalogue. When you click on the link you are shown a table of the imaged planets along with some basic data. For example, on 31 July 2012, the table showed 29 out of a total 777 exoplanets detected by imaging. If you click on the link corresponding to an individual planet, you will be taken to another page which shows more details about that planet, with a picture/image. Be warned though, these pictures will pretty much just show a blob corresponding to a planet. You will not see the sort of thing that is depicted in artistis impressions. In fact, nearly all the pictures of exoplanets you see in the popular media are artistic impressions and are not real. Artistic visualizations definitely play an important role in science education and engagement but don't confuse these with real data and what can be currently achieved.

Below are two examples of pictures/images of exoplanets. Consult the individual pages for each planet in the The Visual Exoplanet Catalogue for more details. A third example is given which was thought to be an image of an exoplanet but that claim has now been disproved: it serves as a caution and reminder that mistakes can be made if one is not careful about proving an assertion with hard data. Read the caption for more details.

Also check out the image of four planets around the star HR8799 in this Nature paper by Marois et al. (2010).

Still, despite all the caveats, even though what you see for an exoplanet is a tiny dot or blob, you can't help being overwhelmed by a powerful feeling when you look at that dot (which is very far removed from any of those “artists impressions” of alien planets that you see). The knowledge that you are looking at another dot that is another world is intoxicating. We have come so far as to be able to look at another world and even to be in a position to wonder whether there are alien “people” on it, living their alien lives, enjoying their alien sun. Or is that other world home to gigantic and fabulous creatures as Earth once was to the dinosaurs?

Picture, image of the exoplanet 2M 1207b

Above: The exoplanet 2M 1207b (orange blob) around a brown dwarf star (a type of star a lot less massive than our Sun). There is also a possibility that the orange blob is not in fact a planet but also a brown dwarf star, and so the blob is referred to as a “planetary-mass object, as in this 2011 paper by Travis et al. Additional image credit:

Picture, image of the exoplanet beta Pic b

The exoplanet beta Pic b (annotated blue blobs, showing the planet in two positions). The host start is more massive than our Sun. Additional image credit:

Previously claimed picture, image of the exoplanet Fomalhaut b

The exoplanet Fomalhaut b (annotated blue blobs, showing the object in two positions). The planet Fomalhaut b was originally detected by means of transits across the host star (according to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia) but then in 2008 it was claimed to be directly imaged as shown above. However, attempts to follow-up the claim with infrared observations failed to find anything so the claim of imaging the planet was demonstrated to be mistaken in April 2012 (see paper by Janson et al. 2012). However, this result is still being debated by some, but a formal rebuttal had not yet been formally published as of 4 August 2012. The planet is still thought to exist however, it's just that the blobs in the above image are not the planet but are probably large dust clouds because the measured physical properties do not correspond to the planet. Additional image credit:

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File under: Pictures and images of exoplanets; Redaction of the image for Fomalhaut b; Images of HR 8799, beta Pictoris b, 2M 1207b.

© Tahir Yaqoob 2011-2012.