Taking pictures of nearby planets and distant galaxies at the American Astronomical Society conference

Posted by Sarah Scoles
on Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Gemini Planet Imager took this first-light image of exoplanet Beta Pictoris b. // Christian Marois (NRC Canada)
NASA's Kepler telescope may be good at finding planets, but it's not good at finding all planets. It's a bit blind to worlds far from their stars. If Kepler were an alien telescope, it would have a hard time seeing our Jupiter, for instance. And its data implies “Hey! There's a planet! It's X miles wide!” rather than “Hey! There's a planet that is Y times Earth's mass and contains A, B, C interesting molecules!” For that kind of analysis, astronomers need a different kind of instrument. Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California described such a tool today at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference. It's called the Gemini Planet Imager, and it takes glamor shots of exoplanets, blocking light from their stars so the planets' dimmer but still detectable light can come through. Looking at the pictures, you might say they're not traditionally pretty, but they do have a lot of personality ... if you know what I mean. And what I mean is that with this instrument, astronomers can take Kepler's worldly and somewhat superficial finds and dive into them. The Planet Imager, attached to the Gemini Telescope, had first light November 11-17, 2013, and will undertake a survey in 2014.

ROX-428b is one of the planets whose picture scientists have taken. It's nine times Jupiter's mass. I don't need to tell you that that's big because you know Jupiter is big, so you know something nine times as big as Jupiter deserves the designation. Thayne Currie of the University of Toronto suggested that it may actually be a brown dwarf, or a body too small to be like a star, too big to be like a planet, and destined to forever wander the cosmic cafeteria in search of a suitable lunch table.

Despite their boundary-blurring status, though, brown dwarfs are getting a lot of attention at the AAS conference. Adam Burgasser of the University of California, San Diego, described spying on our nearest brown dwarf neighbor, a binary system containing Luhman 16A and B. Calling himself an astrometeorologist – which children will now be inspired to grow up to become – he said his team found that one of the brown dwarfs was “perfectly partly cloudy,” with the clouds a balmy 2240° F.

Brown dwarfs, failed stars like the one illustrated here, appear to have planet-sized clouds, likely to be storms, in their atmospheres. // NASA/JPL-Caltech
Ari Heinze of Stony Brook University in New York is another weatherman who can inspire the next generation of interstellar forecasters. He described work on the “Weather on Other Worlds” project, which used the Spitzer Space Telescope to search brown dwarfs for storms that are siblings to Jupiter's Great Red Spot. Most dwarfs have such storms, his team concluded, adding yet another reason to your “Top Reasons Never to Move to a Brown Dwarf” list.

You may, though, want to consider moving to a super-Earth. These planets are a few times Earth's mass, and Nick Cowan of Northwestern University in Chicago and his team asked each other, “Hey, do super-Earths look like Earth?” Traditionally, astronomers say super-Earths should be covered with water, with no land managing to poke up over the vast, Noah-scale oceans. But Cowan's group didn't necessarily buy that. And their new models show that the large planets' high gravities may keep much of the water (as in, an amount equivalent to all of Earth's) trapped in the mantle, decreasing the ocean's depth and letting some surface land dry out. In other words, “Super-Earths may look like Earth,” Cowan said. “All we have to do to find out is launch a high-contrast imager in space. No problem!” When an audience member asked if the high gravity meant life would be squashed, he said that fighter pilots experience a similar G-force. “Little critters are more robust than fighter pilots,” he said. Just don't tell the fighter pilots.

Looking farther out into the universe, the Frontier Fields team wants to use the Hubble Space Telescope to look farther, deeper, and harder into the universe than ever before, a record that will hold until the James Webb Space Telescope is finished (so, you know, 2175). The idea is to have Hubble observe a piece of "blank" sky using both its cameras and the science-that-seems-like-magic of gravitational lensing. Massive clusters of galaxies warp space-time, and when the light from more distant galaxies encounters these bent-out-of-shape regions, it has to follow those skewed paths, just like a car has to follow the curves of a road (unless its driver wants to pay an insurance deductible). In the case of galaxy clusters, the warping acts like a "zoom lens," magnifying the light from whatever is behind it. Using gravitational lensing like an extra attachment on their telescopes, scientists can see galaxies more distant and dim than they could see with their telescopes alone. Frontier Fields will be able to detect galaxies that emerged within the universe's first few hundred million years, maybe even the first ones ever to emerge.  

Such a combination of synthetic and natural zooming resulted in the discovery of 58 galaxies more than 10 billion years old, in the peak of the universe's most virile star formation period. Check out this picture of the whole family together.

And if you want to reach out and touch those galaxies -- well, too bad, you can't, but a group led by Carol Christian of the Space Telescope Science Institute is making 3-D models of some Hubble images using 3-D printers. Because this is the future. Learn more.

And that is, I think, the lesson we should take from today's AAS proceedings: We can image other planets and make touchable nebulae. This is the future.

Related blog:

Exoplanets in the spotlight at the American Astronomical Society conference

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