This infrared image shows the dust ring around the nearby star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus.
Image: Kepler-16b is the first exoplanet disc
Exquisite Exoplanetary Art
Sept. 19, 2011 --
They're alien worlds orbiting distant stars far out of reach of detailed imaging by even our most advanced telescopes. And yet, day after day, we see vivid imaginings of these extrasolar planets with the help of the most talented space artists. The definition of an extrasolar planet -- or "exoplanet" -- is simply a planetary body orbiting a star beyond our solar system, and nearly 700 of these extrasolar worlds have been discovered so far (plus hundreds more "candidate" worlds). With the help of NASA's Kepler space telescope, the ESO's High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), French COROT space telescope and various other advanced exoplanet-hunting observatories, we are getting very good at detecting these worlds, but to glean some of the detail, we depend on artist's interpretations of fuzzy astronomical images and spectral analyses. That's the way it will be until we build a vast telescope that can directly image an exoplanet's atmosphere or physically travel to an alien star system. So, with the flurry of recent exoplanet discoveries, Discovery News has collected a few of the dazzling pieces of art born from one of the most profound searches mankind has ever carried out: the search for alien worlds orbiting other stars; a journey that may ultimately turn up a true "Earth-like" world.
Image: An exoplanet passes in front of (or "t
As an exoplanet passes in front of its star as viewed from Earth, a very slight dip in starlight brightness is detected. Observatories such as NASA's Kepler space telescope use this "transit method" to great effect, constantly detecting new worlds.
Some exoplanets orbit close to their parent stars. Due to their close proximity and generally large size, worlds known as "hot Jupiters" are easier to spot than their smaller, more distant-orbiting cousins.
Image: An artist's impression of Gliese 581d,
The primary thrust of exoplanet hunting is to find small, rocky worlds that orbit within their stars' "habitable zones." The habitable zone, also known as the "Goldilocks zone," is the region surrounding a star that is neither too hot nor too cold. At this sweet spot, liquid water may exist on the exoplanet's surface. Where there's water, there's the potential for life.
Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)
Usually, exoplanet hunters look for the slight dimming of a star or a star's "wobble" to detect the presence of an exoplanet. However, in the case of Kepler-19c, its presence has been detected by analyzing its gravitational pull on another exoplanet, Kepler-19b. Kepler-19c is therefore the Phantom Menace of the exoplanet world.
Image: A cool world some distance from its st
The habitable zone seems to be the pinnacle of extraterrestrial living. If you're an alien with similar needs to life on Earth, then you'll need liquid water. If your planet exists outside your star's habitable zone, well, you're in trouble. Either your world will be frozen like a block of ice, or boiling like a kettle. But say if your world had the ability to extend your star's habitable zone? There may be some atmospheric factors that might keep water in a comfy liquid state. Even better, if you like deserts, a dry world could even be oddly beneficial.
Image: A "hot Jupiter" and its two hypothetic
Planets with a global magnetic field, like Earth, have some dazzling interactions with the winds emanating from their stars. The high-energy particles bombard the planet's atmosphere after being channeled by the magnetism. A wonderful auroral lightshow ensues. But say if there's an exoplanet, with a magnetosphere, orbiting really close to its star? Well, stand back! The entire world would become engulfed in a dancing show, 100-1000 times brighter than anything we see on Earth.
Credit: Adrian Mann, <a href="http://www.bisb
"Candidate" exoplanets are often mentioned, especially when talking about detections by the Kepler space telescope. But what does this mean? As a world passes in front of its star, slightly dimming the starlight, this isn't considered a "confirmed" exoplanet detection. To make sure that signal is real, more orbital passes of the exoplanet need to be logged before a bona fide discovery can be announced. Until then, these preliminary detections are called exoplanet candidates.
Image: An exoplanet being destroyed by X-rays
Angry Suns, Naked Planets
Exoplanets come in all sizes and all states of chaos. Some might have wonky orbits, others might be getting naked. Other times, they're simply being ripped apart by X-rays blasted from their parent star. Bummer.
Image: Artist's impression shows HD 85512b, a
Super-Earths get a lot of press. Mainly because "Earth" is mentioned. Sadly, most of these worlds are likely completely different to anything we'd call "Earth." And you can forget calling the vast majority of them "Earth-like." It's simply a size thing -- they're bigger than Earth, yet a lot smaller than Jupiter, hence their name, "super-Earth." Easy.
Credit: Adrian Mann, <a href="http://www.bisb
For now, we have to make do with artist's renditions of exoplanets for us to visualize how they may look in their alien star systems. However, plans are afoot to send an unmanned probe to an interstellar destination. Although these plans may be several decades off, seeing close-up photographs of these truly alien worlds will be well worth the wait.
A new instrument attached to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world has been switched on and acquired its ‘first light’ images of alien star systems and Saturn’s moon Titan.
The Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (or SPHIRES) instrument has been recently installed at the ESO’s Very Large Telescope’s already impressive suite of sophisticated instrumentation. The VLT is located in the ultra-dry high-altitude climes of the Atacama Desert in Chile.
In the observation above, an ‘Eye of Sauron‘-like dust ring surrounding the star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus, a testament to the sheer power of the multiple technique SPHIRES will use to acquire precision views of directly-imaged exoplanets.
The biggest problem with trying to directly image a world orbiting close to its parent star is that of glare; stars are many magnitudes brighter that the reflected light from its orbiting exoplanet, so how the heck are you supposed to gain enough contrast between the bright star and exoplanet to resolve the two? The SPHIRES instrument is using a combination of three sophisticated techniques to remove a star’s glare and zero-in on its exoplanetary targets.
This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014.ESO
The first technique, known as adaptive optics, is employed by the VLT itself. By firing a laser into the Earth’s atmosphere during the observation, a gauge on the turbulence in the upper atmospheric gases can be measured and the effects of which can be removed from the imagery. Any blurriness caused by our thick atmosphere can be adjusted for.
Next up is a precision coronograph inside the instrument that blocks the light from the target star. By doing this, any glare can be removed and any exoplanet in orbit may be bright enough to spot.
But the third technique, which really teases out any exoplanet signal, is the detection of different polarizations of light from the star system. The polarization of infrared light being generated by the star and the infrared glow from the exoplanet are very subtle. SPHIRES can differentiate between the two, thereby further boosting the observation’s contrast.
“SPHERE is a very complex instrument. Thanks to the hard work of the many people who were involved in its design, construction and installation it has already exceeded our expectations. Wonderful!” said Jean-Luc Beuzit, of the Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble, France and Principal Investigator of SPHERE, in an ESO press release.
The speed and sheer power of SPHIRES will be an obvious boon to astronomers zooming in on distant exoplanets, aiding our understanding of these strange new worlds.
The star HR 7581 (Iota Sgr) was observed in SPHERE survey mode (parallel observation in the near infrared with the dual imaging camera ESO