"Eye in the Sky"
une 24—Looking like a big red eye in the sky, this latest image from the Hubble Space Telescope is giving astronomers the clearest glimpse yet into one of our nearest celestial neighbors. The heavenly halo captured by Hubble is actually a cloud of gas and dust particles surrounding the small star Fomalhaut. The star, which from Earth can only be seen in the Southern Hemisphere, is 25 light years from our solar system—that's just around the corner in astronomical terms.
NASA astronomers unveiled the image June 22, describing it as the most detailed picture ever taken of the nearby star using visible light. The cloud's distinctive cat's-eye shape, astronomers said, is evidence that at least one small planet is orbiting Fomalhaut. Though it can't be seen in the picture, researchers suspect the planet is there because of its gravitational calling card: The oval shape and sharp inner edge of Fomalhaut's halo are signs that a planet is "sweeping" through the dust and gas.
The astronomers were quick to credit Hubble and what they called its "exquisite optical resolution" for the discovery. "This observation is currently impossible to do at visible wavelengths without the Hubble Space Telescope," astronomer Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center said in a statement. "The fact that we were able to detect it with Hubble was unexpected, but impressive."
—Blake de Pastino
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