Washington: University of Arizona`s scientists have found a way to see faint planets previously hidden in their star`s glare.
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.
The system contains at its core a small piece of glass with a highly complex pattern inscribed into its surface.
Called an Apodizing Phase Plate, or APP, the device blocks out the starlight in a very defined way, allowing planets to show up in the image whose signals were previously drowned out by the star’s glare.
"Until now, we only were able to look at the outer planets in a solar system, in the range of Neptune’s orbit and beyond. Now we can see planets on orbits much closer to their parent star,” said Phil Hinz, director of the UA`s Center for Astronomical Adaptive Optics at Steward Observatory.
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.
"For the first time, we can search around bright, nearby stars such as Alpha Centauri, to see if they have gas giants," said Hinz.
"Basically, we are cancelling 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.
"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," he added.