Beta Pictoris b is one of the most extensively studied exoplanets in our cosmic neighborhood. Discovered in 2008, this alien world is located a mere 63 light-years away — in the constellation of Pictor — and orbits a giant star known as Beta Pictoris.
As the Inquisitr previously reported, Beta Pictoris b is a mammoth planet. It is about 13 times more massive than Jupiter, and boasts a radius almost 50 percent larger than that of our gas giant.
This qualifies Beta Pictoris b as a super-Jupiter. Compared to Earth, this exoplanet is a veritable behemoth, packing about 3,000 times more mass. Meanwhile, its parent star is around 1.8 times more massive than the Sun — and shines 10 times brighter.
According to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), Beta Pictoris b sits relatively close to its star, orbiting it from a distance of nearly 1.3 billion kilometers away. That’s roughly the same distance that lies between Saturn and the Sun.
The gas giant circles its parent star once every 21 years. Along the way, the planet gets drowned in the powerful glare emitted by Beta Pictoris, and completely disappears from sight — only to re-emerge on the opposite side of the star a couple of years later.
The adventurous journey of Beta Pictoris b around its blazing star was recently captured in a series of captivating images taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), unveiled yesterday by the observatory. This is the very same telescope that aided in the planet’s discovery a decade ago.
Taken by the VLT’s SPHERE instrument, the snapshots span a period of four years — and record the movement of the exoplanet from December 2014 until September 2018.
“The same science team [that discovered it] tracked the exoplanet from late 2014 until late 2016,” ESO officials explain in the photo release. “Beta Pictoris b then passed so close to the halo of the star that no instrument could resolve them from one another. Almost two years later, after seeming to merge into the image of the star, Beta Pictoris b has now emerged from the halo. This reappearance was captured again by SPHERE.”
The gorgeous photos, in which the glare of Beta Pictoris has been blocked out, were compiled into “a stunning and unique time-lapse of the long-period orbit of Beta Pictoris b,” released on the same day.
The remarkable thing about Beta Pictoris b is that this gas giant is one of the first planets to be discovered through a novel technique called direct imaging — and the most closely orbiting exoplanet ever spotted via this method.
While most exoplanets have been found after astronomers analyzed their effect on the brightness of their parent stars — a technique called the transit method, which looks for dips in a star’s luminosity to locate potential planets passing in front of it, as the Inquisitr recently reported — Beta Pictoris b “does not, in fact, quite transit,” notes the ESO.
Instead, the exoplanet was spotted after the VLT’s NACO instrument took a direct photograph of the gas giant. Its orbit was later unraveled by SPHERE, which homed in on its heat signature and tracked its passage around Beta Pictoris.
The dusty atmosphere surrounding the gas giant, coupled with the planet’s staggering mass, mean that Beta Pictoris cooks up the surface of Beta Pictoris b, heating it to scalding temperatures of 1,500 degrees Celsius, or more than 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. The intense heat coming from the exoplanet enabled SPHERE to spy on the gas giant, and to uncover its position relative to the star.
“These images are a remarkable achievement, heralding a new era in one of the most exciting and challenging areas of astronomy — discovering and characterizing exoplanets,” concluded ESO officials.