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Gemini Observatory has a new tool to study distant planets

January 8, 2014 - 9:45pm

The Gemini Observatory recently announced the launch of a new instrument to study distant planets.

The Gemini Planet Imager detects infrared radiation from young planets orbiting other stars, allowing astronomers to better analyze the planet’s composition.

The instrument is located at Gemini’s 8-meter telescope in Chile, and is available to astronomers worldwide, said Peter Michaud, spokesman for Gemini’s Hawaii Island facility.

Michaud said there are no plans to build a similar instrument at Gemini’s telescope on Mauna Kea.

Until now, most detected exoplanets were found through “indirect methods that tell us a planet is there, a bit about its orbit and mass, but not much else,” said Bruce Macintosh, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, in a Gemini press release.

“With GPI, we directly image planets around stars — it’s a bit like being able to dissect the system and really dive into the planet’s atmospheric makeup and characteristics.”

The planet imager can see planets a million times fainter than their parent stars.

One scientist in a Gemini press release compared it to trying to see a “firefly circling a streetlight thousands of kilometers away.”

Gary Schmidt, program officer for the National Science Foundation, called it an “amazing technical achievement.”

“It is a highly anticipated and well-deserved step into the limelight for the observatory,” he said.

Eventually, such technology might be able to identify Earth-like planets, the release said.

Gemini launched the instrument in November after a decade of development and testing.

Its first observations were of the Beta Pictoris system.

The planet imager also took test images of Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The images, released Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., allow researchers to map changes in Europa’s surface.

This year, the GPI team will conduct a large-scale survey of 600 young stars to see what planets orbit them.

It will also be available to study planet-forming disks and outflows of dust from large, dying stars, according to Gemini.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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