Scientists in Washington D.C. have announced the discovery of a new planet. It is the largest planet ever seen from Earth.
It is just weeks since Pluto was redefined as a dwarf planet. Now, on a gray rainy day at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., astronomers announced the discovery of a new planet. HAT-P-1 orbits one of a pair of distant stars hundreds of light-years beyond ours. The Smithsonian's Robert Noyes told a news conference, "The planet is the largest planet that has ever been seen, inside our solar system or out, and it’s the least dense planet."
It is almost one and half times bigger than Jupiter -- the largest planet in our solar system. And it is less dense than water.
"If you could imagine putting Jupiter in a cosmic water glass, it would sink,” explained Mr. Noyes. “But this new planet, if you could imagine putting it in a cosmic water glass, it would float. It would float very high up. The density of this planet is only about one-fourth that of water."
The discovery is the result of data from four small telescopes combined with that from two of the world's largest. Scanning the sky nightly, astronomers zoomed in on this pair of stars. They discovered and measured the new planet's shadow on one of them.
"I personally think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Noyes. “There are going to be found many, many, many more giant planets, because our technology for detection them is improving, but furthermore, we may discover that Earth-like solar systems like our own are extremely common. There's no reason to doubt that now."
That led to a second announcement.
"We do believe that within to 10 to 15 years we will find the first planet that is small and Earth-like," said astrophysicist Lisa Kaltenegger. She and NASA scientist Wes Traub have analyzed atmospheric gases keyed to life over Earth's history -- creating something of a fingerprint for life.
"We will be able to isolate the light of these planets and tell whether or not the planets we are looking at are giant planets or Earth-like planets,” said Mr. Traub. And when we find Earth-like planets we have a really good shot of looking at this fingerprint of life on that planet."
Finding similar compositions around distant planets, in theory, will indicate conditions for life as we know it.