Using their backyard telescope, today? No; however, this image of three exoplanets required just 1.5 meters (diameter; 60 inches) of a telescope mirror, not vastly larger than the biggest backyard ‘scope.
These particular exoplanets orbit the star HR 8799, and have been imaged directly before, by one of the 10-meter (33-foot) Keck telescopes and the 8.0-meter (26-foot) Gemini North Observatory, both on Mauna Kea in Hawaii; they are among the first to be so imaged, as reported by Universe Today in November 2008 First Image of Another Multi-Planet Solar System.
So how did Gene Serabyn and colleagues manage the trick of taking the image above, using just a 1.5-meter-diameter (4.9-foot) portion of the famous Palomar 200-inch (5.1 meter) Hale telescope’s mirror?
They did it by working in the near infrared, and by combining two techniques – adaptive optics and a coronagraph – to minimize the glare from the star and reveal the dim glow of the much fainter planets.
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“Our technique could be used on larger ground-based telescopes to image planets that are much closer to their stars, or it could be used on small space telescopes to find possible Earth-like worlds near bright stars,” said Gene Serabyn, who is an astrophysicist at JPL and visiting associate in physics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
The three planets, called HR8799b, c and d, are thought to be gas giants similar to Jupiter, but more massive. They orbit their host star at roughly 24, 38 and 68 times the distance between our Earth and the Sun, respectively (Jupiter resides at about five times the Earth-Sun distance). It’s possible that rocky worlds like Earth circle closer to the planets’ homestar, but with current technology, they would be impossible to see under the star’s glare.
The star HR 8799 is a bit more massive than our sun, and much younger, at about 60 million years, compared to our sun’s approximately 4.6 billion years. It is 120 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus. This star’s planetary system is still active, with bodies crashing together and kicking up dust, as recently detected by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Like a fresh-baked pie out of the oven, the planets are still warm from their formation and emit enough infrared radiation for telescopes to detect.
To take a picture of HR 8799’s planets, Serabyn and his colleagues first used a method called adaptive optics to reduce the amount of atmospheric blurring, or to take away the “twinkle” of the star. For these observations, technique was optimized by using only a small fraction of the telescope was used. Once the twinkle was removed, the light from the star itself was blocked using the team’s coronograph, an instrument that selectively masks out the star. A novel “vortex coronagraph,” invented by team member Dimitri Mawet of JPL, was used for this step. The final result was an image showing the light of three planets.
While adaptive optics is in use on only a few amateurs’ telescopes (and a relatively simple kind at that), the technology will likely become widely available to amateurs in the next few years. However, vortex coronagraphs may take a bit longer.
“The trick is to suppress the starlight without suppressing the planet light,” said Serabyn.
The technique can be used to image the space lying just a few arcseconds from a star. This is as close to the star as that achieved by Gemini and Keck – telescopes that are about five and seven times larger, respectively.
Keeping telescopes small is critical for space missions. “This is the kind of technology that could let us image other Earths,” said Wesley Traub, the chief scientist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at JPL. “We are on our way toward getting a picture of another pale blue dot in space.”