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Monday, January 12, 1998 Published at 14:29 GMT


Nasa points to Beta Pictoris planet
image: [ The bulge in the dust cloud shown to the right could indicate a planet ]
The bulge in the dust cloud shown to the right could indicate a planet

A bulge in the image of dust from the star Beta Pictoris 18 light years away could indicate the presence of a planet orbiting it, claims Nasa scientist Sally Heap.

Analysis of earlier pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope indicated that planets were only beginning to form around Beta Pictoris, a very young star at between 20 million and 100 million years old.

[ image: The Hubble Space Telescope]
The Hubble Space Telescope
Using more high resolution images from the newly installed Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS), Ms Heap and her team concluded that a planet already exists.

"We can't see it, but we can see the effects of its gravitational pull," she said. "The planet could be quite close to the star and many times more massive than Jupiter, or it may be far out from the star and only 10 times the mass of the Earth."

The team at the Hubble Space Telescope itself disagrees. According to the team's leader, Al Schultz, the warp could be caused by a small faint brown dwarf star which may be circling Beta Pictoris at large distances.

Another of the team, Fred Bruhweiler of the Catholic University of America, says the distortions may have been caused by the passing of a nearby star within the past few 100 million years.

"The culprit could easily be 1,000 light-years away by now. We probably will never know who did it," he added.

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