For the First Time in History, We Are Seeing Alien Worlds


IN BRIEF
  • A new instrument known as CHARIS was able to isolate light reflecting from an exoplanet — a fairly difficult feat, given that these planets are dimmer than the stars they orbit.
  • In total, there have been 3,537 exoplanets in 2,653 planetary systems and 596 multiple planetary systems confirmed – CHARIS will only help that number grow.

ANALYZING LIGHT

A team of scientists and engineers at Princeton University just gave exoplanet research a long-needed boost. Using a new Earth-bound instrument, the scientists were able to isolate light reflecting from far-out exoplanets.

This new instrument is known as CHARIS, an acronym for Coronagraphic High Angular Resolution Imaging Spectrograph. It was built by a team led by N. Jeremy Kasdin, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton. CHARIS features nine mirrors, five filters, two prism assemblies, and a microlens array. It weighs 226.8 kg (500 lbs), and is maintained at -223.15 C (50 Kelvin, -369 F).

Credits: N. Jeremy Kasdin, et al. / Princeton University

According to the team, CHARIS was able to isolate light reflecting from an exoplanet — a fairly difficult feat, given that these planets are dimmer than the stars they orbit.

“By analyzing the spectrum of a planet, we can really understand a lot about the planet. You can see specific features that can allow you to understand the mass, the temperature, the age of the planet,” researcher Tyler Groff explained.

UNDERSTANDING EXOPLANETS

Exoplanets are planets found outside of the solar system, orbiting another star. We owe most of our success at finding exoplanets to the Kepler space telescope.  But apart from where they are located, there really isn’t much we know about them.

CHARIS can help change that. It has been more than three decades since the first known exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s, and our fascination with them has only increased – especially since they could potentially support life (as a future home for us or a current one for extraterrestrial civilizations).

“With CHARIS spectra we can now do a lot more than simply detect planets: we can measure their temperatures and atmosphere compositions,” said Olivier Guyon, faculty member at the University of Arizona and head of the adaptive optics program at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, with which CHARIS works in conjunction.

Exoplanet research is bound to get even better in the next couple of years, with the capabilities of CHARIS, together with the Subaru Telescope, and with the James Webb Space Telescope’s scheduled launch in 2018.

“There is a lot of excitement,” said Tyler Groff, a member of the Princeton research team currently working in NASA. “[CHARIS] is going to open for science in February to everyone.”

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