Using new optics technology developed at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory, an international team of astronomers has obtained images of a planet on a much closer orbit around its parent star than any other extrasolar planet previously found.
The discovery, published online in Astrophysical Journal Letters, is a result of an international collaboration among the Steward Observatory, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the European Southern Observatory, Leiden University in the Netherlands and Germany's Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy.
Installed on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, or VLT, atop Paranal Mountain in Chile, the new technology enabled an international team of astronomers to confirm the existence and orbital movement of Beta Pictoris b, a planet about seven to 10 times the mass of Jupiter, around its parent star, Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away.
In other words, if alien astronomers in another solar system were studying our solar system using the technology previously available for direct imaging detection, all they would see would be Uranus and Neptune. The inner planets, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Saturn, simply wouldn't show up in their telescope images.
To put the power of the new optics system in perspective: Neptune's mean distance from the sun is about 2.8 billion million miles, or 30 Astronomical Units, or AUs. One AU is defined as the mean distance between the sun and the Earth.
The newly imaged planet, Beta Pictoris b, orbits its star at about seven AUs, a distance where things get especially interesting, according to Hinz, "because that's where we believe the bulk of the planetary mass to be in most solar systems. Between five and 10 AUs."
While planet hunters have used a variety of indirect methods to detect the "footprints" of extrasolar planets – planets outside our solar system – for example the slight gravitational wobble an orbiting planet induces in its parent star, very few of them have been directly observed.
According to Hinz, the growing zoo of extrasolar planets discovered to date – mostly super-massive gas giants on wide orbits – represents a biased sample because their size and distance to their parent star makes them easier to detect.
"You could say we started out by looking at oddball solar systems out there. The technique we developed allows us to search for lower-mass gas giants about the size of Jupiter, which are more representative of what is out there."
He added: "For the first time, we can search around bright, nearby stars such as Alpha Centauri, to see if they have gas giants."
The breakthrough, which may allow observers to even block out starlight completely with further refinements, was made possible through highly complex mathematical modeling.
"Basically, we are canceling out the starlight halo that otherwise would drown out the light signal of the planet," said Johanan (John) Codona, a senior research scientist at the UA's Steward Observatory who developed the theory behind the technique, which he calls phase-apodization coronagraphy.
"If you're trying to find something that is thousands or a million times fainter than the star, dealing with the halo is a big challenge."
To detect the faint light signals from extrasolar planets, astronomers rely on coronagraphs to block out the bright disk of a star, much like the moon shielding the sun during an eclipse, allowing fainter, nearby objects to show up.
Using his own unconventional mathematical approach, Codona found a complex pattern of wavefront ripples, which, if present in the starlight entering the telescope, would cause the halo part to cancel out but leave the star image itself intact. The Steward Observatory team used a machined piece of infrared optical glass about the size and shape of a cough drop to introduce the ripples. Placed in the optical path of the telescope, the APP device steals a small portion of the starlight and diffracts it into the star's halo, canceling it out.
"It's a similar effect to what you would see if you were diving in the ocean and looked at the sun from below the surface," explained Sascha Quanz from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute for Astonomy, the lead author of the study. "The waves on the surface bend the light rays and cause the sky and clouds to appear quite different. Our optic works in a similar way."
In order to block out glare from a star, conventional coronagraphs have to be precisely lined up and are highly susceptible to disturbance. A soft night breeze vibrating the telescope might be all it takes to ruin the image. The APP, on the other hand, requires no aiming and works equally well on any stars or locations in the image.
"Our system doesn't care about those kinds of disturbances," Codona said. "It makes observing dramatically easier and much more efficient."
In the development of APP, Codona was joined by Matt Kenworthy (now at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands). Hinz, who is a member of the instrument upgrade team for the VLT, played a key role in the technique's implementation on the 6.5 Meter Telescope on Mount Hopkins in Southeastern Arizona.
Former UA astronomy professor Michael Meyer, now at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, where he led the group implementing the technology on the VLT, pointed out that APP is likely to advance areas of research in addition to the hunt for extrasolar planets.
"It will be exciting to see how astronomers will use the new technology on the VLT, since it lends itself to other faint structures around young stars and quasars, too."
Daniel Stolte | EurekAlert!
OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA
27.10.2016 | University of Oklahoma
First results of NSTX-U research operations
26.10.2016 | DOE/Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory
Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.
This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...
Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion
Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...
Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.
"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...
In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.
A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...
By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.
"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...
14.10.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
12.10.2016 | Event News
27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences
27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy
27.10.2016 | Life Sciences