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Fourth planet found in distant star system

Los Angeles -- U.S. astronomers say a giant planet found outside our solar system is highlighting the remarkable resemblances between a distant planetary system and our own.

Researchers at UCLA, along with international colleagues, discovered and imaged a fourth planet in a distant solar system that resembles a supersized version of our own system, a UCLA release said Wednesday.

"Besides having four giant planets, both systems also contain two 'debris belts' composed of small rocky or icy objects, along with lots of tiny dust particles," Benjamin Zuckerman, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy says.

Our giant planets are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, and our debris belts include the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and the Kuiper Belt, beyond Neptune's orbit.

The newly discovered fourth planet orbits a bright star called HR 8799, some 129 light years from Earth and faintly visible to the naked eye.

The new world joins three previously discovered planets that were the subjects of a 2008 paper in the journal Science reporting the first-ever images of a planetary family orbiting a star other than our sun.

"This is the fourth imaged planet in this planetary system, and only a tiny percentage of known exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) have been imaged; none has been imaged in multiple-planet systems other than those of HR 8799," Zuckerman said.

"We reached a milestone in the search for other worlds in 2008 with the discovery of the HR 8799 planetary system," astronomer Christian Marois said. "The images of this new inner planet are the culmination of 10 years' worth of innovation, making steady progress to optimize every aspect of observation and analysis. This allows us to detect planets located ever closer to their stars and ever further from our own solar system."

Copyright 2010 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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