Super-Powerful Gemini Camera's First Image Shows A Planet and Its Star 63 Lights Years Away

By Ajit Jha on January 11, 2014 2:56 PM EST

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The first image captured by Gemini has excited astronomers. The super powerful Gemini camera has captured the image of a 10-million-year-old planet, Beta Pictoris B, orbiting its star. The planet is more than 63 light years or about 370.44 trillion miles away from earth.  

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This is the first image taken by the small car-sized Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), the world's most powerful planet-hunting instrument, which has been under development for nearly a decade. The instrument is built for the Gemini telescope in Chile to image extrasolar planets in nearby regions. 

The highly efficient GPI takes barely a minute to detect infrared radiation from young Jupiter-like planets in wide orbits around other stars - it used to take about an hour. While GPI directly images planets, the past methods could locate planets only indirectly. "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," said Bruce Macintosh, of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, according to The Daily Mail. Macintosh, along with his team, helped build the instrument.

"Seeing a planet close to a star after just one minute was a thrill, and we saw this on only the first week after the instrument was put on the telescope," said Fredrik Rantakyro a Gemini staff scientist working on the instrument.

The team focused on previously known planetary systems, including Beta Pictoris, for their first GPI observations. They could detect starlight scattered by tiny particles in the form of dust orbiting a very young star 200 lights years away, identified as HR4796A. While the previous instruments showed only the edges of this dust, Gemini showed it more clearly. It is speculated that the dust ring could be the debris originating from planet formation. 

GPI's first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A.
GPI's first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A.

The technologically advanced GPI is designed not just for distant stars and planets but also for near objects within our solar system. Scientists, for instance, can map changes in the surface composition of Jupiter's moon, Europa, when presented with its GPI image.

There is already an ambitious GPI program on the cards this year. The team is expected to conduct a large-scale survey of about 600 young stars to probe giant planets that orbit them. At its current degree of sophistication, and because of the Earth's turbulent atmosphere, GPI may not be able to see smaller planets than the size of Jupiter. However, proposed future space telescopes with similar technology are expected to perform much better. 

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