Tag Archives: Gemini Planet Imager

Astronomers photograph an exoplanet

51 Eridani b

Cool image time! Astronomers have used the Gemini Telescope on Mauna Kea to take the clearest image yet of a Jupiter-sized gas giant orbiting another star 96 light years away.

Once the astronomers zeroed in on the star, they blocked its light and spotted 51 Eri b orbiting a little farther away from its parent star than Saturn does from the sun. The light from the planet is very faint — more than one million times fainter than its star – but GPI can see it clearly. Observations revealed that it is roughly twice the mass of Jupiter. Other directly imaged planets are five times the mass of Jupiter or more. In addition to being the lowest-mass planet ever imaged, it’s also the coldest — about 800 degrees Fahrenheit — and features the strongest atmospheric methane signal on record. Previous Jupiter-like exoplanets have shown only faint traces of methane, far different from the heavy methane atmospheres of the gas giants in our solar system.

All of these characteristics, the researchers say, point to a planet that is very much what models suggest Jupiter was like in its infancy.

The exoplanet is the bright spot near the bottom of the image.

A solar system like our own, but when it was a baby

Astronomers have discovered a very young 15 million year old star only 360 light years away that has a debris disk about the size of our solar system’s Kuiper Belt.

The ring is about the same distance from its parent star as the Kuiper belt is from the Sun, and receives roughly the same amount of light. Its blue-grey colour hints that it could consist of ices and rocky silicates such as those found in the Kuiper belt, says lead author Thayne Currie, an astronomer at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, which is run by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “This is absolutely the closest example we have of a young Kuiper belt,” he says.

The best part of this discovery however might be how it was made, by using a new instrument on the ground-based Gemini telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The instrument, which is part of the Gemini South telescope in Chile, uses a disk called a coronagraph to blot out the glare of bright stars. That allows it to take multi-wavelength pictures of faint, orbiting planets and debris disks around stars, by recording near-infrared light from the parent star as it scatters off the debris. The researchers discovered the disk around HD 115600 fewer than 6 months after the GPI began operation. A similar instrument, known as SPHERE, began operating in May 2014 on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and has also begun to make discoveries.

Assuming protesters don’t force Gemini to close, we should be getting a lot more exoplanetary discoveries from it in the coming years.