Monday, November 17, 2008


Though the confirmed existence of planets outside our own star system has long been one of the coolest things that astronomy has had to offer to the lay person, it has always been somewhat unsatisfying that their detection was always by very indirect and complicated methods beyond the ken of non-scientists. But no more: just days ago the existence of three planets in orbit of HR 8799 and one planet of the Fomalhaut system was directly observed telescopically (the images alongside this entry are from Wikipedia; the one on the top is an artist's impression of the planet Fomalhaut b and the other one is the Hubble image of the Fomalhaut system). For me, Fomalhaut is one of the best possible stars for finding the first directly observable extrasolar planet because it is a star that has shown up again and again in science fiction. Just a few examples: in Gordon Dickson’s Childe Cycle novels, Fomalhaut 3 is the homeworld of the Dorsai; the second planet of Fomalhaut is called Rokanon in Ursula LeGuin’s Rocannon’s World; Philip Dick, in Radio Free Albemuth, places Fomalhaut as the source of an alien probe; in August’s Derleth’s Lovecraftian stories “The House on Curwen Street” and “Dweller in the Dark,” Fomalhaut is the home star of the god Cthugha, a sort of fire spirit. It becomes more and more obvious over time (not that readers of science fiction ever doubted it) that the universe, including relatively nearby areas of it, is chockfull of planets, and the spectacular accomplishment of actually seeing in a straightforward way Fomalhaut b and the planets of HR 8799 really renews our interest in this fact.

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