Monday, March 24, 2014

Gemini South Telescope: A new eye to scan the sky for exoplanets

The Gemini South telescope houses the latest gear to hunt down and snap photos of exoplanets. 

Credit: Gemini Observatory, CC BY 

There is excitement in astronomy and planetary science departments worldwide as the new Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), housed in the Gemini South Telescope in the Chilean Andes, turns its razor-sharp gaze to the skies.

This device, known as GPI for short, is the first of a small handful of sophisticated instruments to attempt a task that until recently was considered all but impossible: to image the faint mote of light betraying the presence of a planet nestled against the overwhelming glare of its host star.

Planets in orbit around distant stars, exoplanets, are now known to adorn more than 1,000 star systems. There is possibly five times that number under strong suspicion awaiting only final confirmatory data to join the club.

You could be forgiven for thinking this avalanche of discovery – all coming in the past 20 years – has settled most of the important questions in exoplanetary science.

The reality, though, is it hasn't.

Location, location, location
The sample of exoplanets we now have tells us far more about the limitations of the techniques we use to find them than it does about the exoplanets themselves. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg.

The search can be likened to the proverbial scientist in a dark car park searching for a set of dropped car keys under the only streetlight.

A passer-by asks: "Did you drop your keys there?" "No," you reply. "I dropped them somewhere over there in the dark, but I can only see here."

That patch of discovery illuminated by our present instruments particularly favours the largest planets in the closest orbits about their host stars.

The extreme examples of this (and the most celebrated exoplanet discovery, of 51 Peg, that launched the field in 1995) are known as "hot Jupiters".

The name understates their inhospitable crushing gravity combined with searing radiation field from the looming host star.

In a quest to identify planets capable of supporting life hot Jupiters score low. Astronomers are working on a valuation scheme that would identify those that lie within the so-called "habitable zone".

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