A strange new image of the giant planet Jupiter has been released today which scientists say will help them identify Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars.
The eerie image of the WM Keck Observatory in Maunakea, Hawaii comes from the ‘first light’ of its new instrument, the Keck Planet Finder, which is set to revolutionize the hunt for life beyond Earth from the spring 2023.
Why the colored lines instead of the recognizable cloud bands of the giant planet and its “Great Red Spot” storm? The Keck Planet Finder is now the world’s most advanced spectrometer for visible wavelengths.
Astronomy is just the study of light. A spectrometer scatters light from an object into a spectrum, much like a rainbow. It allows astronomers to discover gases and chemicals in the atmospheres of stars and planets. Some colds are “biosignatures” – signs of life on a planet’s surface.
His images may not be immediately interesting to the layman, but they could be of incredible value in the search for life beyond Earth. Earth-sized planets around other stars are extremely difficult to detect due to their small size, which is why the Keck Planet Finder is big news.
About one in five Sun-like stars has an Earth-sized planet in its so-called “habitable zone” where it is hot enough for liquid water to exist on the surface.
“We are the first generation that will truly understand the other planets in our galactic neighborhood,” said Sherry Yeh, assistant instrument scientist for Keck Planets Finder at the Keck Observatory.
The Keck Planet Finder has been on the drawing board for nearly a decade. “Seeing KPF’s first astronomical spectrum was a moving experience,” said Andrew Howard, KPF principal investigator and professor of astronomy at Caltech. “I’m excited to use the instrument to study the great diversity of exoplanets and to unravel the mysteries of how they formed and evolved to their current state.”
When new telescopes and astronomical instruments come online, astronomers tend to test and show off their capabilities with a series of “first light” images. Jupiter’s spectrum is such an image, included for its technical purity rather than its scientific value. It was taken on November 9, 2022, as is the spectrum of a star called 51 Pegasi in the constellation Pegasus, which hosts 51 Pegasi b, the first planet to orbit a Sun-like star (an exoplanet) ever. discovered in 1995.
Also called “Dimidium”, its discoverers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2019. In the years that followed, more than 5,000 exoplanets were discovered. 51 Pegasi b is a so-called “hot Jupiter,” but Keck Planet Finder should survey the Earth-like planets out there — and with incredible precision.
“Before the recent boom in exoplanet discoveries over the past two decades, we didn’t really know what other planets existed. [and] if our own solar system or our own Earth were common,” Yeh said.
Spectra from the new telescope will be used to find exoplanets by using the Doppler effect to measure the host star’s radial velocity over time. The motion of a star reveals the gravitational pull of all the planets orbiting it. A star wobbles if there are orbiting planets because they all orbit around a common center of mass away from the star’s center of mass.
Keck Planet Finder will look for this stellar wobble, which astronomers can measure to infer the mass and density of orbiting planets. His genius lies in his unprecedented precision, which will allow him to study less massive planets that cause smaller “wobbles” in their host stars. When fully commissioned, the new instrument will be able to detect stars moving back and forth at a speed of just 30 centimeters/second. It’s about 10 times more powerful than any other similar instrument currently in use.
I wish you clear skies and big eyes.
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