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New camera designed to make planet hunting easy

A new piece of high tech equipment promises to revolutionize the hunt for extrasolar planets. The equipment in question: the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI). The promise: the ability to discover exoplanets simply by pointing a telescope at a star and looking for a planet orbiting it.

Talk about easy!

For thousands of years, scientists and philosophers wondered whether there could be other planets orbiting other stars. However, the first extrasolar planet, which orbits a star called 51 Pegasei, wasn't found until 1995. In the 14 years following this historic discovery, about 500 more extrasolar planets had been found, largely by the use of Doppler Spectroscopy. When NASA launched Keplerin 2009, a new era in planet hunting was born as Kepler used an ultra sensitive light meter to measure the photons coming from distant stars. Any dip in the photons could then be interpreted as evidence of a planet transiting the face of its parent star. Subsequent observations would therefore be made to confirm this fact. To date, Kepler has flagged nearly 4,000 planetary candidates. In all, scientists know, without any doubt, of about 1,500 planets orbiting other stars.

What Kepler did for planet hunting in 2009 by its utilization of then-new technology to measure previously immeasurably small dips in stellar brightness is what astronomers hope that the GPI will do for planet hunting in 2014.

So, how does the GPI work?

In theory, it's old technology that has been refined to a new level of precision. Like many solar observing satellites at work now, the GPI will come equipped with a coronagraph that will block the light from whatever star the camera is trained upon. Additionally, the GPI will utilize adaptive optics to eliminate distortion caused by air moving in the Earth's atmosphere. Final result of the steady image eliminated of bright starlight: a plainly visible planet orbiting its parent star.

The best part: the GPI has already been tested on known extrasolar planetary systems with huge success.

Speaking on the GPI and its potential, Bruce MacIntosh of Stanford University said that "when we took our very first image of a planet, it wasn't surprising that the planet was there — it had been seen long before — but that we could see it in a single, 1-minute image with no fancy processing, as opposed to an hour of telescope time and lots of advanced image processing [as was needed] with previous instruments, was amazing . . . everyone in the control room was astounded."

If being able to image a planet weren't amazing enough, the GPI will also be able to determine a planet's composition, too.

For the next several months, scientists plan on fine tuning the GPI before putting it into real research work in November in an observation campaign that will train the GPI on 600 stars. Already, the GPI team expects to find anywhere between 20 and 50 planets.

Needless to say, stay tuned for updates!

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