Reports this week about the first planet found beyond the solar system have triggered controversy about who made the initial discovery and whether the object is a planet or burned-out relic of an ancient star.
The National Science Foundation announced Monday that two University of Arizona astronomers using telescopes at Kitt Peak National and Steward observatories discovered what appeared to be a planet circling the star Van Biesbroeck 8 in the constellation Ophiuchus 21 light years from Earth.
The planet was described as being as warm as 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and between three and 10 times the size of Jupiter, largest of the nine known planets circling the sun. "The body we identified as a planet is too dim and too cool to be a star," said Dr. Donald W. McCarthy Jr. of the University of Arizona.
Dr. Robert Harrington of the Naval Observatory says he and two associates found the object a year and a half ago and determined that it is a "brown dwarf," relic of a dead star. "We were there first, I don't think there's any doubt of that. Besides, it's not a planet. Only Don McCarthy would call something that warm and that big a planet," he said.
Harrington concedes that, when he peered through the Naval Observatory's 61-inch telescope in Arizona, he did not "see" an object circling the star but rather a telltale "wiggle" suggesting that it is being moved by a nearby object.
"We published our results in the Astronomical Journal, and we said there appeared to be a substellar mass there that was either a brown dwarf or a true planet," he said.
McCarthy and Dr. Frank J. Low observed the object as a point of light in two telescopes equipped to measure the object's temperature. Low said he does not understand the fuss about who found it first as Harrington never saw the object.
"He Harrington ought to be happy that the two observations complement each other," Low said.