Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The world's most powerful planet-hunting instrument shows off its first images

The image above might not look like much, but what it shows is in fact stunning: a 10-million-year-old planet called Beta Pictorus b, located around 63 light years from Earth, orbiting around its giant parent star. And images like this one are poised to become much more common, thanks to the launch of a camera that'll vastly improve our abilities to detect far-off planetary systems. The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a collaborative international effort among institutions including NASA, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the University of California, Berkeley, has been in development for nearly a decade. This week, however, researchers unveiled the camera's first shots of distant planets, which were snapped from the Gemini South telescope in Chile this past November. Spot and capture an exoplanet's image within minutes The instrument is specifically designed to detect infrared radiation (allowing it to readily spot young planets still glowing brightly from their formation) and actually "masks" light emitted by parent stars that would otherwise block or distort a planet. Researchers estimate that it's about ten times more sensitive than previous instruments, and will be able to spot and capture an exoplanet's image within minutes — rather than days. Not to mention that, until recently, detecting and analyzing exoplanets was largely a matter of inference. "Most planets that we know about to date are only known because of indirect methods that tell us a planet is there, a bit about its orbit and mass, but not much else," said team leader Bruce Macintosh in a statement. "With GPI we directly image planets around stars — it's a bit like being able to dissect the system and really dive into the planet's atmospheric makeup and characteristics." A planet's formation, atmospheric composition, temperature, and orbit In the months and years to come, scientists will certainly have no shortage of exoplanets to dive into. For now, those working with GPI plan to study some 600 young stars to create a survey of their orbiting planets. And of course, GPI will yield much more than just mind-boggling images: data from the instrument will offer clues into a planet's formation, atmospheric composition, temperature, and orbital pattern.

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