A collaboration of researchers from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and NASA the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) last month inaugurated an advanced imaging system on the Palomar Observatory, in California.
The high-tech instrumentation and software package is collectively called Project 1640, and is outfitted on Palomar's Hale telescope. It took the joint research team more than six years to develop the system.
According to experts, this is the first instrument of its kind capable of detecting extrasolar planets in orbit around their parent stars from the ground. Usually, astronomers prefer to look for exoplanets via space telescope, since they bypass the light signature-dampening effect of the atmosphere.
Details of how the system works were presented at the International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE) Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation meeting, which was held on July 5, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
The primary function of the new technology is creating extremely precise dark holes around the stars that experts want to investigate. This enables them to block out most of the light coming in from that star, which in turn allows them to detect the faint glow of a potential exoplanet.
Under normal conditions, the brightness of a star is several thousand times more intense than that of a planet orbiting around it. The signal the latter emits can therefore be easily obscured. With the new approach, this risk – inherent to astronomical observations until now – is significantly reduced.
“We are blinded by this starlight. Once we can actually see these exoplanets, we can determine the colors they emit, the chemical compositions of their atmospheres, and even the physical characteristics of their surfaces,” said Ben R. Oppenheimer, who presented the new system at the conference.
“Ultimately, direct measurements, when conducted from space, can be used to better understand the origin of Earth and to look for signs of life in other worlds,” adds the expert, the principal investigator for Project 1640 and a curator in the AMNH Department of Astrophysics.
The Executive Director of the NASA ExoPlanet Science Institute, Charles Beichman, compares searching for exoplanets based on the light they emit with trying to identify a firefly zooming around a searchlight located 1,000 miles (1,610 kilometers) from where an observer stands.
“The more we learn about them, the more we realize how vastly different planetary systems can be from our own. All indications point to a tremendous diversity of planetary systems, far beyond what was imagined just 10 years ago. We are on the verge of an incredibly rich new field,” JPL astronomer Gautam Vasisht concludes.