New Exoplanet Hunter Directly Images Alien Worlds

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Gemini Planet Imager’s 'first light' image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A.
GPI/Gemini/Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute

Speaking at the 223rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington D.C. on Tuesday, Macintosh showcased images from the GPI’s “first light” campaign in November.

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“Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments,” he said in a Gemini Observatory press release. “In one minute, we are seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect.”

In a stunning image of the Beta Pictoris system, located some 63.4 light-years from Earth, the GPI clearly picked out the known exoplanet Beta Pictoris b and measured the world’s spectrum for the first time. This is akin to trying to photograph a firefly buzzing around a streetlamp thousands of miles away and measuring the spectrum of the chemicals providing the luminescence in the firefly’s tail.

In addition to imaging Beta Pictoris, GPI turned to the young star HR4796A, located 237 light-years away, which is surrounded by a ring of proto-planetary dust (above). Using the instrument’s polarization filter, astronomers were able to see the full detail of the ring.

A little closer to home, the GPI also focused on Europa, Jupiter’s enigmatic icy moon, and resolved surface features that closely matched observations by flyby missions.

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One of the first projects the GPI will undertake is a three-year search campaign with the goal of observing 600 young and bright stars in the southern sky, writes SETI Institute astronomer and member of the GPI development team Franck Marchis in a recent GPI blog update.

“In two decades, thanks to sophisticated instruments like GPI, stargazers will no longer see stars as simple twinkling specks of light, but also as worlds surrounded by planets,” Marchis added.

Comparison of Europa observed with Gemini Planet Imager in K1 band on the right and visible albedo visualization based on a composite map made from Galileo SSI and Voyager 1 and 2 data (from USGS) on the left.
GPI/Gemini/Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute and Franck Marchis SETI Institute
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