August 20, 2019

05.06.10: An Exoplanet Family Portrait.

Astronomers have recently accomplished another amazing first; the first images of an exoplanetary system taken with modest sized optics. But to perform this feat, several ground-breaking techniques had to first be pioneered. The target was HR 8799, a known exoplanetary system 120 light-years distant in the constellation Pegasus. The instrument was the Hale telescope just north of San Diego, and the team was out of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in San Diego. Using a combination of coronagraph and masking the scope down to a diameter of 1.5 meters in diameter, the team was able to capture the above resulting image. The revolutionary “funnel coronagraph” was necessary to block the swamping light of the parent star; the masking was used to maximize the use of adaptive optics. The image was also taken in the infrared, an area of the spectrum in which the young hot planets generate the most energy. “The trick is to suppress the starlight without suppressing the planet light,” Stated JPL Astrophysicist Gene Serabyn. To give you a sense of scale, the three exoplanets pictured lay about 24 to 68 A.U. from their host sun; our own Jupiter orbits at a distance of about 5 A.U. Not only will the technique be capable of being scaled up for the observatory big guns, but it could also prove effective for space-based platforms, where a tension always exists between what astronomers would like to launch and payload limitations. Expect to see more exoplanet images via this method in the near future!

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