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Published: Wednesday, 3/23/2005

Telescope sees light of distant planets


WASHINGTON - Two teams of astronomers have for the first time detected a dim light emanating from planets orbiting stars outside our own solar system.

The discovery has broad implications in the intensifying search for distant planets that could support life.

Light from two planets was detected by the Spitzer Space Telescope, which observed the planets' warm infrared glow. It is named for the late Dr. Lyman Spitzer, Jr., a native Toledoan.

Until now scientists had only indirect evidence of the existence of these planets, hundreds of light years away. The actual detection of light from the two planets, announced yesterday at NASA's headquarters, confirms the previous findings and deeply sharpens astronomers' ability to understand the composition of these new worlds by analyzing their color and temperature.

The new planets are far too hot to support life. But scientists say the method used to make the discoveries opens an era in direct observation of planets.

"It's an awesome experience to realize we are seeing the glow of distant worlds," said David Charbonneau, assistant professor of astronomy at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which led one of the teams. "We've been hunting for this light for almost 10 years."

Mr. Charbonneau's team detected infrared light, which is emitted by any hot object, from a planet in the constellation Lyra. Results of his work will be published in the June 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. The other team, led by Drake Deming of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, detected light from another planetary system. That research is being reported today in the online version of the journal Nature.

In the last few years scientists have been able to demonstrate the presence of some planets by the tiny amount of starlight they block when orbiting around their star, much like a shadow that appears on the ground when a plane passes overhead.

It wasn't until the Spitzer Space Telescope was launched by NASA in August, 2003, that scientists had more refined tools to detect planets' infrared glow.

Dr. Spitzer, who died in 1997 at 82, was widely regarded as one of the world's greatest astrophysicists. He was a leader in the campaign to build and launch the Hubble Space Telescope.

His grandfather, financier A.L. Spitzer, built the Spitzer Building in downtown Toledo.

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