To date, scientists have discovered over 1,000 of what are referred to as extrasolar planets, or exoplanets, which are planets that exist beyond our own Solar System. The discovery of exoplanets around young stars can help scientists learn more about the formation of planets, and, thus, is a top priority. To this end, scientists have just finished designing and instituting a new instrument called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), which was especially designed to be able to capture images of exoplanets.
Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory led the team of scientists who designed, developed, and built the GPI over a course of nearly 10 years. They designed the GPI to capture images while attached to the 8-meter Gemini South telescope, which is one of the world’s largest telescopes and stationed in Chile. The GPI was especially built to be able to focus on the dusty disks surrounding young stars, from which is believed that young planets are formed, and be able to capture images of faint planets that would be far too difficult to see next to their bright stars. The GPI is able to capture images of only giant-sized planets like Jupiter, and it does so by identifying infrared radiation, which is heat radiation, in the dusty disks surrounding the new stars. Being able to detect the new planets through infrared radiation using the new GPI allows scientists to see the images of the exoplanets 10 times better than instruments that were designed earlier. As Bruce Macintosh phrases it, due to the GPI, “In one minute, we are seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect.”
The GPI is a huge advancement considering that before the GPI, scientists were only able to detect exoplanets through analyzing mass and following orbital patterns. According to a press release issued by the RedOrbit staff, a team of Japanese scientists used exactly these same methods to detect giant planets forming around the young star HD 142527, not long after the GPI was first put to use in Chile. Japanese scientists from both Osaka University and Ibaraki University used the ALMA telescope to discover HD 142527 in the Lupus constellation. The scientists observed a ring of dust forming around HD 142527 and used a measure of the dust ring’s density in the “densest part of the ring” to conclude it is likely that “planets are now being formed” in that densest area. What’s important about the discovery concerning HD 142527 is that they found the densest part of the dusty disk to actually be significantly far from the actual star, showing that planets are actually being formed far away from the star when scientists have theorized in the past that the planets formed closest to the stars. The distance between where the planets are being formed and the actual star is “about 5 times larger than the distance between the Sun and Neptune.” After detecting the densest part of the ring, scientists then measured the temperature in the mass in order to calculate exactly how much material was in the mass so that they could determine whether or not a gaseous planet or rocky planet could be formed in the mass. Scientists theorize that if there is more dust and gas present in the dense section of the dusty disk, then a giant gaseous planet will form, “several times more massive than Jupiter.” They further theorize that if more dust is in the densest part of the dusty disk than in any other area of the disk, then a rocky planet, like earth will form, or even “comets, or cores of gaseous planets.” Hence, being able to both calculate dense sections of dusty disks surrounding young stars and being able to capture images of young planets near young stars will help scientists further understand exactly how planets are formed.
Scientists gave the GPI its first test run November 2013 before announcing the completion of the device to the public on January 7, 2014. Scientists were happy that the test went very smoothly. They observed Beta Pictoris, an already-known planetary system. GPI was able to capture an image of the ring of a planet called Beta Pictoris b that is within this system, allowing scientists to observe the whole circumference of the ring where as with other instruments they have only been able to see the edges of the planet’s ring.
Michaud, Peter. (2014, January 7). “Gemini Planet Imager first light: Worlds most powerful exoplanet camera turns its eye to the sky.” Gemini Observatory. EurekAlert .
Staff. (2014, January 18). “ALMA Telescope Used to Find Giant Planetary System Forming Around Young Star.” RedOrbit .