Gemini Planet Imager Tracks Down Giant Planet Orbiting Beta Pictoris
January 7, 2014

Gemini Planet Imager Tracks Down Giant Planet Orbiting Beta Pictoris

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

The internationally operated Gemini Observatory has announced the start-up of its new Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a device designed to capture images of planets outside our Solar System and probe their atmospheres.

The imager, which released its first image on Tuesday, was deployed on the observatory’s 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.

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

The device is able to sense infrared radiation from planets similar to the giant planets in our own Solar System, albeit at a much younger age.

"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," Macintosh said. "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."

For GPI's first observations, which were carried out in November, the team examined previously known planetary systems. In the familiar Beta Pictoris system, GPI captured the first-ever spectrum of the very young planet Beta Pictoris b.

"This was one of the smoothest first-light runs Gemini has ever seen" said Stephen Goodsell, who manages the project for the observatory.

The first-light team also used the GPI's polarization mode – which can pick up starlight dispersed by tiny particles – to examine a soft ring of dust circling the young star HR4796A. Previous instruments had only been able to capture the edges of this dust ring. However, GPI astronomers were able to see the complete circumference of the ring.

The GPI team also turned the device on our own Solar System, capturing images of Jupiter's moon Europa that mapped changes on the satellite’s surface. Images of the Jovian moon were shown on Tuesday at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, DC.

GPI is able to image planets a million times fainter than the stars they orbit, a task Gemini scientists compared to trying to see a firefly circling a streetlight thousands of miles away.

"Seeing a planet close to a star after just one minute, was a thrill, and we saw this on only the first week after the instrument was put on the telescope!" said Fredrik Rantakyro, a Gemini staff scientist working on the GPI. "Imagine what it will be able to do once we tweak and completely tune its performance."

"GPI represents an amazing technical achievement for the international team of scientists who conceived, designed, and constructed the instrument, as well as a hallmark of the capabilities of the Gemini telescopes. It is a highly-anticipated and well-deserved step into the limelight for the Observatory,” added Gary Schmidt, program officer at the National Science Foundation (NSF), which helped fund the project.