Does this photo look weird and a bit blurry? Consider that it shows Beta Pictoris b, a planet orbiting Beta Pictoris 63 million light-years away. Under those circumstances it’s an amazing shot that would do any shutterbug proud.
The photo was taken by an international team using the The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) at the at the Gemini South Telescope in Chile, is claimed by the team to be the best image yet of an exoplanet, a planet outside our solar system.
“We’ve been working on the Gemini Planet Imager for 10 years,” said Bruce Macintosh, a Stanford professor of physics and the principal investigator on the international planet-hunting project. “We finally got it operational on the telescope last November and it worked beautifully right out of the box.”
The planet is the white dot in the picture. It’s sun is the large object at the center, hidden behind a mask to make it easier to image the planet. Researchers say they should be able to use the technology to discover details about the chemical makeup of the planet and its orbit.
Other planets have been photographed, but pre-GPI optics would only allow for images of planets much larger than Jupiter and far from their stars. The GPI technology allows for imaging planets of Jupiter size closer to their stars, although it’s not to the point where it could see an Earthlike planet at an Earthlike distance from our sun, because that would be too small.
“But it’s a step on the road,” Macintosh said. “Some day a future space telescope will use the same technology, and be able to see an Earth around one of these nearby stars.”