New Alien Planet Discovered By Qatar-Led Team

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A new gas giant alien planet was discovered by an international team led by an astronomer from the Arab nation of Qatar.

The find represents a significant success for Qatar's science research program, and demonstrates the power of science to cross political boundaries and increase ties between nations, the study's leaders said in a statement.

The new planet, which orbits an orange type K star 550 light-years away, is dubbed Qatar-1b. It joins the ranks of over 500 alien planets that have now been found beyond our solar system. [ Gallery: Strangest Alien Planets ]

"The discovery of Qatar-1b is a great achievement -- one that further demonstrates Qatars commitment to becoming a leader in innovative science and research," said Khalid Al Subai, leader of the Qatar exoplanet survey and a research director of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. "This discovery marks the beginning of a new era of collaborative astrophysics research between Qatar, the United Kingdom and the United States," he added.

Subai teamed with scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Mass., and other institution to make the discovery.

The Qatar exoplanet survey is an ongoing project that hunts for stars that "wink," dimming slightly every time an orbiting planet creates a mini-eclipse by crossing in front of the star as seen from Earth. Transit searches like this must sift through thousands of stars to find the small fraction with detectable planets.

"The discovery of Qatar-1b is a wonderful example of how science and modern communications can erase international borders and time zones," said CfA team member David Latham. "No one owns the stars. We can all be inspired by the discovery of distant worlds."

To find the new world, Qatars wide-angle cameras (located in New Mexico) took images of the sky every clear night beginning in early 2010. The photographs then were transmitted to the United Kingdom for analysis by collaborating astronomers at St. Andrews and Leicester Universities and Qatar. That analysis narrowed the field to a few hundred candidate stars.

The researchers then followed up on the most promising candidates, making spectroscopic observations with the 60-inch-diameter telescope at the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory in Arizona. Such observations can weed out binary-star systems with grazing eclipses, which mimic planetary transits. They also measured the stars' dimming more accurately with Whipple's 48-inch telescope.

Qatar-1b is a gas giant 20 percent larger than Jupiter in diameter and 10 percent more massive. It belongs to the hot Jupiter family because it orbits 2.2 million miles from its star -- only six stellar radii away. The planet roasts at a temperature of around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 degrees Celsius).

Qatar-1b circles its star once every 1.4 days, meaning that its year is just 34 hours long. Its expected to be tidally locked with the star, so one side of the planet always faces the star. As a result, the planet spins on its axis once every 34 hours -- three times slower than Jupiter, which rotates once in 10 hours.

A paper announcing the discovery has been submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society for publication.