Exoplanet-Hunting Telescope Online This Fall

The Gemini Planet Imager, an exoplanet-hunting telescope, is set to go online this fall. The Gemini Planet Imager is heralded as being far more advanced than the current array of telescopes tasked to search for planets orbiting distant suns.

The technology which makes this new telescope a step above the current technology in use is a mirror made from advanced silicon microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) instead of glass.

According to Wired,

The system uses two quarter-coin-size silicon wafers to erase blurred light. GPI’s computer will send electrical signals to more than 4,000 actuators to warp the super-thin mirror painted on the upper layer. To accommodate that many sensors, a conventional adaptive optics mirror would have to be more than 15 inches across, bigger than a MacBook Pro. That would make GPI far too big to fit on its intended telescope: the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile. MEMS’s compact deformable mirror will provide an image much brighter and sharper than that of any other ground-based telescope.

What this essentially means is that the new silicon systems will allow for a higher definition image of those distant orbital bodies. When compared to what we are currently able to see, this is a huge leap forward.

According to the Gemini Planet Imager’s home site:

GPI will detect DIRECTLY the light from an extrasolar planet to determine its mass and composition, with an ultimate goal of determining the nature of our own planetary system. More than 800 extrasolar planets are now known, but mostly through indirect Doppler techniques that indicate the planet’s mass and orbit. If we can directly pick out a planet from the star’s glare, we can use spectroscopy to measure the planet’s size, temperature, gravity, and even the composition of its atmosphere. By targeting many stars we will understand how common or unusual our own planetary system may be.

Very exciting to say the least.

This is a side by side comparison of the images currently offered and the image possible via the use of the Gemini:

Telescope Hunting Exoplanets Online This Fall

On the left is an image of what is currently captured at the Gemini Observatory. On the right is an example of what will be possible with the Gemini Planet Imager. Quite a disparity in resolution.

So why is this important? Why should we care about exoplanets?

Well, for centuries man has been blind as to the nature of our home system, how it was formed, where we came from, where we’re going. It is the hope of the scientific community that we will garner a better understanding of the answers to some of those questions. Observing how other stars’ orbital bodies behave can lend a lot of insight toward our own situation.

One day it may even answer that timeless question: Are we alone?

Peering out across the interstellar void has always been something not easily accomplished but as we move further into the 21st century, expect to see more technology like this appear on the market.

What are your thoughts? Are we alone? Are you excited about these types of advances?