TECH

Astronomers Photograph 'Cherry Blossom' World Around Alien Star (PICTURES)

07/08/2013 09:16 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST

When it comes to exoplanets, it's generally worth not being all that surprised when something weird shows up. Firstly because there are quite a lot of them, and secondly because virtually everything in space looks a bit exotic from our cosseted, Goldlocks Zone perspective.

That said, the weirdness does keep pouring in. And the latest strange finding certainly fires up the ol' sci-fi imagination circuits.

Astronomers have taken a photograph of the lowest-mass planet ever directly imaged around another Sun.

nasa

The alien world is still ridiculously huge - four times the mass of Jupiter - but given the sheer distance from Earth, which is about 57 light years, the fact that we've taken a picture of it is pretty extraordinary.

The planet (GJ 504b) is a cold, dark magenta world according to the infrared data from the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii. It lies in orbit around its star about 44 times farther away than Earth is to our Sun, and has an average temperature of about 460 degrees Fahrenheit.

nasa

"If we could travel to this giant planet, we would see a world still glowing from the heat of its formation with a colour reminiscent of a dark cherry blossom, a dull magenta," study researcher Michael McElwain from Nasa's Godddard Flight Center said in a statement.

"Our near-infrared camera reveals that its colour is much more blue than other imaged planets, which may indicate that its atmosphere has fewer clouds."

The star system is still relatively young - just 160 million years, compared to our Sun's venerable 4.5 billion years.

Markus Janson, a Hubble postdoctoral fellow at Princeton, said the find "implies that we need to seriously consider alternative theories" about how planets are formed.