Photo captures faraway planet

Posted Dec. 01, 2008, at 7:46 p.m.

Fomalhaut reigns in solitary splendor on the southern horizon in the company of five fainter stars making up the constellation of Piscis Austrinus, the Southern Fish.

However, as it turns out, Fomalhaut is not quite as alone as first thought.

University of California-Berkeley astronomer Paul Kalas recently announced, after eight years of trying, that he took the first visible-light picture ever of a planet outside of our solar system.

“It came as a complete surprise,” Kalas said. “I nearly had a heart attack.”

Kalas took pictures of the planet in both 2004 and 2006 and was able to determine that the Jupiter-sized planet orbited Fomalhaut at a distance of 11 billion miles and has a year of 872 Earth years.

Kalas used the Hubble Space Telescope to take the picture and, since the star is 100 million times brighter than its planet, employed a special filter aboard the telescope to block the star’s glare.

Kalas suspected the presence of a planet because its gravity carved out a path in the huge dust ring surrounding Fomalhaut at a distance corresponding to its orbit.

Focus of the planets

December opens with the spectacular sight of Venus, Jupiter and the moon forming a tight triangle well up on the southwest horizon an hour after sunset.

Mercury waits to appear until the very end of the month when it may be seen in the company of Jupiter low in the southwest about an hour after sunset.

Venus blazes well up on the southwestern horizon after sunset where it cannot be mistaken for any other heavenly body.

Mars is lost to view on the other side of the sun this month.

Jupiter, noticeably dimmer than Venus, is just to the latter’s upper right on Dec. 1. The thin crescent moon makes up the triumverate dominating the southwestern horizon as the darkness deepens.

Saturn rises after midnight and is high in the south about an hour before sunrise. Saturn’s rings are essentially edge-on and that allows a rare opportunity to watch its moons, particularly Titan, pass across the face of the planet.

Uranus is a greenish-blue disk in Aquarius viewable by small telescope or binoculars.

Neptune is best seen on Dec. 3, when it appears as a bluish disk to the lower left of the crescent moon.

Both Uranus and Neptune can be located using the finder’s chart at SkyandTelescope.com/UranusNeptune.

December events

1 Sunrise, 6:52 a.m.; sunset, 3:56 p.m.

5 Moon in first quarter, 4:25 p.m.

12 Full moon, 11:38 a.m. The full moon of December is called variously the Cold Moon, the Long Night Moon, and the Moon Before Yule. The moon is at perigee, or nearest approach to Earth for the year. This fact, coupled with the full moon, can lead to astronomically high tides.

13 The Geminid meteor shower peaks tonight but the nearly full moon will obscure all but the very brightest of this normally significant display.

18 The sun enters Sagittarius on the ecliptic.

19 Moon in last quarter, 5:30 a.m.

21 Winter solstice, 7:04 a.m. The sun has reached its most southern point below the celestial equator heralding the first day of winter and the longest night of the year in North America. The sun enters the astrological sign of Capricornus at the solstice but astronomically is still in Sagittarius.

22 The peak evening for the Ursid meteor shower typically displaying five meteors per hour but occasionally much higher of slow-moving, faint meteors. The moon will pose no problem.

25 Merry Christmas!

26 The moon is at apogee or farthest distance from Earth.

27 New moon, 7:22 a.m.

28 Look to the southwest after sunset to see an ascending line of the thin crescent moon, Mercury and Jupiter. Venus is far to the group’s upper left.

31 Sunrise, 7:13 a.m.; sunset, 4:04 p.m.

Send astronomical queries to Clair Wood at cgmewood@aol.com or care of the Bangor Daily News, Lifestyle Desk, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, Maine 04402.

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