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Starts With A Bang

Watch: Four gas giants in orbit around another star for the first time

Four gas giants orbiting the star HR 8799. Image credit: Jason Wang / Christian Marois.

And if you’re amazed by this, just imagine what the next generation of space-and-ground-based telescopes will see!

“The Beta Pic animation looked so cool that we’ve wanted to do more. We wanted to make one that was even more impactful for the audience and could begin to show what one of these systems looks like.” –Jason Wang

The era of directly imaging planets beyond our Solar System has officially arrived. We don’t just see stars that generate their own light, but actual planets, reflecting the light from their stars.

A composite image of the first exoplanet ever directly imaged (red) and its brown dwarf parent star, as seen in the infrared. Image credit: European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The first world directly imaged was 2M1207b in 2004, where infrared observations revealed a planet larger and more massive than Jupiter, orbiting a brown dwarf.

An exoplanet detected around the star Fomalhaut, seen to move in multiple images over time. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Kalas, University of California, Berkeley and SETI Institute.

Four years later, three other stars joined the ranks: Fomalhaut, HR 8799 and Beta Pictoris.

All of these stars are young and still have debris disks, like this very large one seen by Spitzer around HR 8799. The small dot represents the size of Pluto’s orbit around the Sun. Image credit: Spitzer space telescope, NASA.

By applying a coronagraph — masking the parent star’s light — bright enough, distant enough exoplanets can be seen directly.

Just as we can use a coronagraph to block the Sun’s light and view the corona and emitted flares, that same principle can be used to block distant starlight and view planets around it. Image credit: ESA & NASA / SOHO.

Making subsequent observations of the same system allows us not only to image worlds around other stars, but to track planetary motion over time.

The planet Beta Pictoris b (left) orbits the central star over a two year period, which is obscured by the telescope’s coronagraph. Image credit: M. Millar-Blanchaer, University of Toronto; F. Marchis, SETI Institute.

By knowing what to look for, we can even take spectra of these distant worlds, measuring the molecular contents of exoplanet atmospheres.

The spectrum of one of the four planets around the star HR 8799. Image credit: ESO/M. Janson.

The most distant worlds orbiting HR 8799 take hundreds of years to make a complete revolution.

Even with accurate position data going back to 2009, the gas giants seen will require much more time to complete a single revolution. Image credit: Jason Wang / Christian Marois.

The outer three can even be seen with a small, 1.5 meter telescope.

This 2010 picture of three of the four known exoplanets orbiting HR 8799 represents the first time a telescope this small — less than a full-grown human being — was used to directly image an exoplanet. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Palomar Observatory.

When telescopes like JWST and GMT come online, we can start imaging the nearest Earth-like planets, and gas giants many hundreds of light years away.

A side-view of the completed GMT as it will look in the telescope enclosure. It will be able to image Earth-like worlds out to 30 light years away, and Jupiter-like worlds many hundreds of light years distant. Image credit: Giant Magellan Telescope — GMTO Corporation.

Mostly Mute Monday tells a story about our Universe in pictures, animations and no more than 200 words.

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