Anyone who knows me should be able to readily attest to the fact that I’m endlessly enthralled by exoplanets. And you know, who wouldn’t be? I was raised on a healthy diet of Star Trek and Isaac Asimov stories after all, so the fact that we live at a time when we can directly image exoplanets is very exciting!
Especially when images like this now exist…
This is a direct image of the planet Beta Pictoris b, with its parent star masked off in the centre of the image. Surrounding the pair is a vast ring of dust, not unlike the dusty disks found in our own solar system. Seriously, just take a second to drink in exactly how amazing this is. You’re looking at an image of a world 63.4 light years away. That’s nearly 600 trillion kilometres. The fact that we can see such distant objects so clearly is still incredible to me.
In fact, this image is the first light image from the new Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) instrument, now mounted and operational on the Gemini South telescope in Chile. It’s a brand new piece of hardware, carefully optimised to image faint exoplanets next to bright stars. Given than first light images are typically just that – the first time anyone’s put any light through an instrument – they’re normally pretty poor compared with what the instrument is capable of producing at the hands of a skilled operator. Which means that if the first light image is this good, the images it’s capable of producing must be fantastic.
A lot more information about the GPI is available from the Gemini Observatory website…
Upper – Processing by Christian Marois, NRC Canada.
Lower – Processing by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute.