Scientists catch the 'millennium' planet's glow

British astronomers have captured the first light beams reflected by a planet outside the solar system in a study that is seen as the first step to identifying another inhabited world.

British astronomers have captured the first light beams reflected by a planet outside the solar system in a study that is seen as the first step to identifying another inhabited world.

The researchers glimpsed the blue-green colour of the "Millennium Planet" using the William Herschel Telescope on the Canary Islands and a custom-built computer program to disentangle the planet's extremely faint light from the background illumination of the night sky.

Although astronomers have detected over the past four years about 20 planets outside the solar system by the gravitational pull that makes their nearby stars wobble, this is the first time scientists have directly observed a planet's reflected light.

The observation, published in the Nature journal, was made by Andrew Collier Cameron, Keith Horne and David James of the University of St Andrews, and Alan Penny of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Chilton, Oxfordshire. "This is the first time that a planet has actually been seen, so for the first time we've got some physical knowledge," Dr Penny said.

"It's an important step towards studying small planets like the Earth and studying for life on them. We've seen the light from this planet and we can make the first guess of what the atmosphere of this distant world might be like."

The planet does not yet have a name, although unofficially it is the "Millennium Planet". It orbits the star Tau Bootis, located some 50 light years away in the constellation of Bootis. Calculations made from the shifting colour of the reflected light suggests that the planet is nearly four times heavier than Jupiter, the solar system's biggest planet.

The "Millennium Planet" is 20 times nearer to its star than the Earth is from the Sun and is so close that even the Hubble Space Telescope cannot distinguish between the two objects. "The combination of close orbit, high mass and the fact that Tau Bootis is hotter and bigger than our Sun, means this planet is one of the hottest known," said Adam Burrow and Roger Angel, two Arizona University astronomers, in an accompanying commentary.

At a temperature of some 1,100C, the planet would be unsuitable for life, and like other gaseous planets would in any case have no solid surfaces for life to evolve in a watery medium. "If it was a solid planet it would be so small that we wouldn't be able to detect the light reflected from it. This technique can only work for large gas planets," Dr Collier Cameron said.

However, the success of the observation using a ground telescope has shown that it is technically feasible to decipher a planet's reflected light even though it is some 20,000 times fainter than its nearest star. Dr Penny said a mission involving sending telescopes into space would improve the chances of detecting smaller, solid planets.

"To be one of the first people on Earth to see a completely new planet is an awesome experience, especially on the eve of a new millennium," Dr Penny said. "Our discovery is a major step in finding out what these planets are really like, a step that could lead to finding planets like Earth."

Within 20 years it will be possible to take photographs of planets outside the solar system, analyse the chemical composition of their atmosphere and even judge whether they harbour life. "The teenagers of today will have children who will put posters on their walls depicting another Earth-like planet, and they will wonder what it is like there," he said.

Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Esteban Cambiasso makes it 3-3
premier league
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
people'I hated him during those times'
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam