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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Picture this: Astronomers photograph distant worlds

    UA researchers are the first to use an Earth-based telescope with the digital technology found in cell phones and cameras to snap pictures of a planet outside of our solar system.

    “This is the first time imaging at this wavelength,” said Jared Males, a NASA Sagan Fellow in the UA Department of Astronomy and the lead author of a report published in The Astrophysical Journal.

    Males’ research focuses on the study of exoplanets, which are planets that revolve around distant stars. The burgeoning science has already led to the discovery of hundreds of such planets.

    “There are so many planets orbiting other stars,” Males said. “For every star that you count, there is at least one planet out there.”

    Most of the previous work used indirect methods to study the exoplanets. For example, it can be determined whether a planet is orbiting a star by looking for the signature wobble caused by the gravitational attraction between the two.

    While these indirect methods were useful for discovering the presence of the planet, they weren’t as good for understanding what the planets were like. Males explained that imaging the planets could answer questions about the planet’s composition, what the temperature is like, and whether it has water or clouds.

    “It’s only been a decade since exoplanet science really took off as a field, because the technology wasn’t there before,” said Vanessa Bailey, a UA graduate student in the department of astronomy who works on imaging exoplanets, as well as instrumentation for adaptive optics. “This is a level of characterization that we wouldn’t have been able to do 10 years ago.”

    However, taking pictures of these planets is difficult because of the stars, Males explained. This is because the planets are much fainter than their host stars. The twinkle of the stars, caused by the turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, creates glare that obscures the planet.

    This is where the Magellan Adaptive Optics technology, developed by astronomy professor Laird Close and his team, comes into play.

    “It takes all the light that has been changed into a blob by the twinkling and makes it into a sharp point,” Males said. “We can then see the faint planet.” This is how the UA researchers were able to image the exoplanet Beta Pictoris b.

    The technology works by using a deformable mirror that can be commanded to create an equal and opposite deformation to cancel out the blurring of the atmosphere, Bailey explained.

    “The amazing thing about this research is that 50 years ago, we couldn’t point to a single exoplanet,” said Samiul Ahad, a chemical engineering senior. “Now, maybe it will be a possibility to start seeing atmospheres and even spot signs of life.”

    Males described this as crossing the line from knowing where the planets are there to knowing what the planets are like.

    “We have all these questions about how planets form,” Males said. “How common is our solar system compared to all the other solar systems that we are now finding? Is ours a fluke? Or is it part of what is normal out there?”

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