After nearly a decade of development, construction and testing, the world's most advanced instrument for directly imaging and analyzing planets orbiting around other stars is pointing skyward and collecting light from distant worlds.
"Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, we were seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect," says Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team who built the instrument.
For the past decade, Lawrence Livermore has been leading a multi-institutional team in the design, engineering, building and optimization of the instrument, called the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), which will be used for high-contrast imaging to better study faint planets or dusty disks next to bright stars. Astronomers -- including a team at LLNL-- have made direct images of a handful of extrasolar planets by adapting astronomical cameras built for other purposes. GPI is the first fully optimized planet imager, designed from the ground up for exoplanet imaging deployed on one of the world's biggest telescopes, the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile.
Gemini Planet Imager's first light image (see picture) of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A. This narrow ring is thought to be dust from asteroids or comets left behind by planet formation; some scientists have theorized that the sharp edge of the ring is defined by an unseen planet. The left image shows normal light, including both the dust ring and the residual light from the central star scattered by turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere. The right image shows only polarized light. Leftover starlight is unpolarized and hence removed from this image. The light from the back edge of the disk is strongly polarized as it scatters towards us.
Gemini's website: http://planetimager.org/