Stunning first light images emerge from Gemini Planet Imager

January 9, 2014 by  
Filed under Solar Energy Tips

According to a January 7 news release from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the most advanced instrument for directly imaging and analyzing planets orbiting other stars is finally operational after almost 10 years of development, testing, and evaluation.

“Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, we were seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect,” said Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team that built the instrument.

Called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), the instrument will be used for high-contrast imaging to better study dim planets or dusty disks adjacent to bright stars.  GPI is the first fully improved planet imager, designed for exoplanet imaging deployed on one of the world’s largest telescopes: the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Probing the environments of distant stars in a search for planets has required the development of next-generation, high-contrast adaptive optics (AO) systems, in which Livermore is a leader. These systems are sometimes referred to as extreme AO.

According to Macintosh, direct imaging of planets is difficult because planets such as Jupiter are a billion times dimmer than their parent stars.  ”Detection of the youngest and brightest planets is barely within reach of today’s AO (high-contrast adaptive optics systems),” he said.  ”To see other solar systems, we need new tools.”

GPI completed its first observations in November 2013.  ”The GPI team’s huge amount of high quality work has begun to pay off and now holds the promise of many years of important science to come,” said LLNL Project Manager David Palmer.

During GPI’s first observations, it imaged earlier known planetary systems – the 4-planet HR8799 system and the Beta Pictoris system, amid others.  GPI has also acquired the first spectrum of the young planet Beta Pictoris b.

“GPI’s performance requirements are extremely challenging,” said LLNL engineer Lisa Poyneer, who established the algorithms used to correct for atmospheric turbulence, and directed the testing of the AO system in the laboratory and on the telescope.  ”As a result, the AO system features several original technologies that were designed specifically for exoplanet science.  After years of development and testing, it is very rewarding to see the AO system operating so well and enabling these remarkable images.”

Capturing images of exoplanets is complementary to other exoplanet successes such as NASA’s Kepler mission, which is exceedingly sensitive to small planets close to their parent star and focuses on mature stars.

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