Planet Hunters No Longer Blinded by the Light:
New Way to See Faint Planets Previously Hidden in Their Star's Glare
ScienceDaily (Oct. 17, 2010) — Using
new optics technology developed at the University of Arizona's Steward
Observatory, an international team of astronomers has obtained images of a
planet on a much closer orbit around its parent star than any other extrasolar
planet previously found.
The discovery, published online in Astrophysical Journal Letters, is
a result of an international collaboration among the Steward Observatory, the
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, the European Southern Observatory,
Leiden University in the Netherlands and Germany's Max-Planck-Institute for
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.
At the core of the system is a small piece of glass with a highly complex
pattern inscribed into its surface. Called an Apodizing Phase Plate, or APP,
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.
"This technique opens new doors in planet discovery," said Phil Hinz,
director of the UA's Center for Astronomical Adaptive Optics at Steward
Observatory. "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."
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
To put the power of the new optics system in perspective: Neptune's mean
distance from the sun is about 2.8 billion million miles, or 30 Astronomical
Units, or AUs. One AU is defined as the mean distance between the sun and the
The newly imaged planet, Beta Pictoris b, orbits its star at about seven AUs,
a distance where things get especially interesting, according to Hinz, "because
that's where we believe the bulk of the planetary mass to be in most solar
systems. Between five and 10 AUs."
While planet hunters have used a variety of indirect methods to detect the
"footprints" of extrasolar planets -- planets outside our solar system -- for
example the slight gravitational wobble an orbiting planet induces in its parent
star, very few of them have been directly observed.
According to Hinz, the growing zoo of extrasolar planets discovered to date
-- mostly super-massive gas giants on wide orbits -- represents a biased sample
because their size and distance to their parent star makes them easier to
"You could say we started out by looking at oddball solar systems out there.
The technique we developed allows us to search for lower-mass gas giants about
the size of Jupiter, which are more representative of what is out there."
He added: "For the first time, we can search around bright, nearby stars such
as Alpha Centauri, to see if they have gas giants."
The breakthrough, which may allow observers to even block out starlight
completely with further refinements, was made possible through highly complex
"Basically, we are canceling 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 who developed the theory
behind the technique, which he calls phase-apodization coronagraphy.
"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."
To detect the faint light signals from extrasolar planets, astronomers rely
on coronagraphs to block out the bright disk of a star, much like the moon
shielding the sun during an eclipse, allowing fainter, nearby objects to show
Using his own unconventional mathematical approach, Codona found a complex
pattern of wavefront ripples, which, if present in the starlight entering the
telescope, would cause the halo part to cancel out but leave the star image
itself intact. The Steward Observatory team used a machined piece of infrared
optical glass about the size and shape of a cough drop to introduce the ripples.
Placed in the optical path of the telescope, the APP device steals a small
portion of the starlight and diffracts it into the star's halo, canceling it
"It's a similar effect to what you would see if you were diving in the ocean
and looked at the sun from below the surface," explained Sascha Quanz from the
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology's Institute for Astonomy, the lead author
of the study. "The waves on the surface bend the light rays and cause the sky
and clouds to appear quite different. Our optic works in a similar way."
In order to block out glare from a star, conventional coronagraphs have to be
precisely lined up and are highly susceptible to disturbance. A soft night
breeze vibrating the telescope might be all it takes to ruin the image. The APP,
on the other hand, requires no aiming and works equally well on any stars or
locations in the image.
"Our system doesn't care about those kinds of disturbances," Codona said. "It
makes observing dramatically easier and much more efficient."
In the development of APP, Codona was joined by Matt Kenworthy (now at Leiden
Observatory in the Netherlands). Hinz, who is a member of the instrument upgrade
team for the VLT, played a key role in the technique's implementation on the 6.5
Meter Telescope on Mount Hopkins in Southeastern Arizona.
Former UA astronomy professor Michael Meyer, now at the Swiss Federal
Institute of Technology Zurich, where he led the group implementing the
technology on the VLT, pointed out that APP is likely to advance areas of
research in addition to the hunt for extrasolar planets.
"It will be exciting to see how astronomers will use the new technology
on the VLT, since it lends itself to other faint structures around young stars
and quasars, too."