Photographing Cool, Distant Planets Now Possible

Back in 1985, I lived in Arizona and attended Arizona State University. My favorite

Image taken by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) shows a planet orbiting the star Beta Pictoris.

classes were (of course) a mid-level class in astronomy and in physics.

Many evenings after dinner, my friend, Hol, and I would float around in the pool and discuss all sorts of heady topics, such as surface tension, pulsars, light spectra, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Hol helped me take the leap into converting science into mathematics.

On one of those nights 29 years ago, in one of those heady discussions, the topic was astrophotography. In the retelling of something that I had learned in class that day, I misspoke and said that we were close to actually photographing planets outside of our solar system in visible light. Time has erased what I actually meant to say, but my friend got a good chuckle out of that.

“How absurd is THAT,” he blurted (or something quite similar to that). I, of course, immediately got defensive and said, “What? Well I didn’t mean to say that we could photograph planets today, but I’m sure we will someday.”

“HA! That’ll NEVER happen!” he insisted, and he was not one to say the word ‘never’. “They’re too far away and too small and too buried in the visible light of their sun. What a ridiculous idea.”

When he put it that way, it did sound rather implausible, but I dug in my heels and announced that yes, I believed it WAS possible and that it would happen in my lifetime. In my memory, he sneered at me for weeks after that, but he probably just snorted and said that I was totally wrong. A $10 bet ensued.

So here we are, nearly 30 years later, and it’s finally happened using a charged couple device (CCD). The new technology is called Magellan Adaptive Optics (MagAO). The first planet recently captured was Beta Pictoris b in the constellation Pictor, which has a mass 12 times that of Jupiter and orbits its sun at nine A.U. (equivalent to the distance from here to Saturn).

The exciting thing about this advancement is that unlike infrared, which only picks up “hot” planets today, we can use CCD to detect planets that have cooled. Cooled planets have a much greater likely to be habitable.

So ha HA Mr. Hol. Looks like I get the last laugh after all. I’ll be watching for that ten-spot in the mail.


Mars at Opposition

Last night was the big night to see Mars up close. Ok – relatively close anyway. What is opposition you ask? When Mars is at opposition it means that it is directly opposite the sun relative to us. As you can see here, on April 8th the sun is directly opposite Mars from our perspective. It’s about 57 million miles away, not the closest it can get, but not too bad.

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

As you can see, in 2003 Mars was very close, at 35 million miles. What this means for us observers is that Mars is bigger! We’re able to see more surface features and polar ice caps. Some may even be able to see clouds!

Mars at Opposition
Mars at Opposition

I went out tonight with my 90mm refractor. Unfortunately I didn’t bring a powerful enough eyepiece outside with me and by the time I went back in to get one the clouds rolled in. Such is observing in Wisconsin.

Try observing Mars this week – do some sketching at the eyepiece! Try adding a filter, green to bring out the polar ice caps. You could get out your smart phone and try some through the eyepiece photography! If you’re really busy you could spot Mars over the trees on your way home and take a moment to smile at our planetary neighbor.

It’s all good.