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Space: American Astronomer Detects A New Planet

Washington, 29 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- An American astronomer says she has found and photographed a planet outside the Earth's solar system, a discovery which scientists are calling "enormously exciting."

Susan Terebey of the Extrasolar Research Corporation in California unveiled her discovery Thursday at a press conference in Washington sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Anne Kinney, one of the astronomers who examined Terebey's data, says she considers the finding a "watershed event" in astronomy.

Kinney explains that for the past several years, astronomers have been able to infer or guess at the existence of other planets outside the Earth's solar system by applying indirect methods such as studying gravitational wobbles. But Kinney says Terebey's find is the first direct evidence of a planet beyond the Earth's solar system.

Terebey, whose team used the Hubble Space Telescope to make the discovery, says the planet -- called TMR-1C -- is located within a star-forming region in the constellation Taurus. According to Terebey, the planet is situated at the end of a filament of light which leads away from a pair of brilliant binary stars -- two stars developing in the same vicinity -- which are believed to be the planet's parent stars.

Terebey says that planet is about 450 light years away from the Earth and is estimated to be two to three times the mass of Jupiter. However, she adds that the planet is likely too hot and gaseous to support either human or animal life.

But Terebey says that while the preliminary findings do not confirm the presence of other terrestrial planets such as Earth, scientists do believe large gas planets influence the formation of much smaller rocky planets like Earth.

Terebey, whose main focus of research is studying young stars, says she accidentally came upon the planet while studying images of newly formed protostars.

Says Terebey: "I said to myself, 'This is really weird. What in the world could it be?"

After applying standard mathematical and scientific models to her findings, Terebey says she was startled to discover that she had likely stumbled across a new planet.

Terebey says the pictures of the new planet were actually taken last August. But she says she was unable to immediately process the data since she had to wait for special hi-tech computer software to be developed so she could properly examine it.

Terebey says it was late December, early January, when she first realized what she had found. But she says she spent several months, carefully checking and re-examining the data.

NASA officials say they learned about the discovery just a few weeks ago.

Edward Weiler, a science program director at NASA's headquarters in Washington, told reporters Thursday that Terebey and her findings had been extensively examined by leading astronomers in the field before being considered scientifically sound.

Weiler also emphasized that the discovery is still considered preliminary. Further examination, tests and photographs are necessary to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that TMR-1C is indeed a new planet, he said.

But Terebey says she remains optimistic that her finding will be the first of many discoveries of new planets in the universe. Perhaps with some even being able to support human or intelligent life, she adds.

Says Terebey: "This is part of a journey exploring the universe, looking for intelligent life. In some sense, that is what we would all like to find -- intelligent life out there."