It's only been two decades since scientists first discovered planets outside our solar system. Now we can look forward to actual pictures of these exoplanets rolling in by the dozen over the next few years.
Tuesday, the team at the Gemini Observatory in Chile announced their newest toy is now online and functional: the Gemini Planetary Imager, which is able to take direct pictures of planets in other solar systems.
The announcement included an image of a planet circling a star more than 63 light years away — about 370 trillion miles. The team also snapped a picture of a dust ring around a star nearly four times that distance. (Via Gemini Observatory)
Thanks to other projects like NASA's Kepler Space Observatory, the list of known exoplanets is nearing the 1,000 mark. But most of those projects relied on indirect methods of detecting the planet, like looking at how its parent star's light dimmed when the planet passed in front of it.
The list of directly-imaged exoplanets is much shorter — only about a dozen. That's because it's difficult to see a planet from that far away when it's right next to a star.
The Globe and Mail compares the task to "spotting a firefly perched on a blazing searchlight miles away." But since GPI was designed to take just that kind of picture, one researcher told the paper "Hopefully, they’ll just be falling off the telescope."
Astronomer Phil Plait raved about the images on his blog at Slate, saying "I am very, very impressed with this machine. ... I can’t wait to see what the next few years will show us."
The new rig obviously has huge scientific implications. Direct imaging can tell researchers all kinds of things about these planets, like how they formed, what they're made of — even the temperature of the atmosphere. (Via Vimeo / Frank Marchis)
The new pictures were from what's called a "first light," which is sort of a test run for astronomical equipment. Future pictures of exoplanets may be even clearer.