By staff

A new technique has uncovered an extrasolar planet hidden in Hubble Space Telescope images taken 11 years ago

The new strategy may allow researchers to uncover other distant alien worlds potentially lurking in over a decade's worth of Hubble archival data.

The method was used to find an exoplanet that went undetected in Hubble images taken in 1998 with its Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS). Astronomers knew of the planet's existence from images taken with the Keck and Gemini North telescopes in 2007 and 2008, long after Hubble snapped its first picture of the system.

The planet is estimated to be at least seven times the mass of Jupiter. It is the outermost of three massive planets known to orbit the dusty young star HR 8799, which is 130 light-years away from Earth. NICMOS could not see the other two planets because its coronagraphic spot — a device that blots out the glare of the star —blocked its viewof the two inner planets.

"We've shown that NICMOS is more powerful than previously thought for imaging planets," said the scientist who found the planet, David Lafreniere of the University of Toronto in Canada. "Our new image-processing technique efficiently subtracts the glare from a star that spills over the coronagraph's edge, allowing us to see planets that are one-tenth the brightness of what could be detected before with Hubble."

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