May 09, 2013
Whitney Clavin 818-354-4673
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
“Gone are the days of being able to count the number of known planets on your fingers. Today, there are more than 800 confirmed exoplanets — planets that orbit stars beyond our sun — and more than 2,700 other candidates. What are these exotic planets made of? Unfortunately, you cannot stack them in a jar like marbles and take a closer look. Instead, researchers are coming up with advanced techniques for probing the planets’ makeup.
One breakthrough to come in recent years is direct imaging of exoplanets. Ground-based telescopes have begun taking infrared pictures of the planets posing near their stars in family portraits. But to astronomers, a picture is worth even more than a thousand words if its light can be broken apart into a rainbow of different wavelengths.
Those wishes are coming true as researchers are beginning to install infrared cameras on ground-based telescopes equipped with spectrographs. Spectrographs are instruments that spread an object’s light apart, revealing signatures of molecules. Project 1640, partly funded by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., recently accomplished this goal using the Palomar Observatory near San Diego.
‘In just one hour, we were able to get precise composition information about four planets around one overwhelmingly bright star’, said Gautam Vasisht of JPL, co-author of the new study appearing in the Astrophysical Journal. ‘The star is a hundred thousand times as bright as the planets, so we’ve developed ways to remove that starlight and isolate the extremely faint light of the planets.’
Along with ground-based infrared imaging, other strategies for combing through the atmospheres of giant planets are being actively pursued as well. For example, NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes monitor planets as they cross in front of their stars, and then disappear behind. NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will use a comparable strategy to study the atmospheres of planets only slightly larger than Earth.”
See the full article here.
Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge , on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.
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