An earlier version of this article was accidently published last week before it was completed. This is the finished version, with information from this week’s AAS annual conference.
Let’s face it: the field of exoplanets has a significant deficit when it comes to producing drop-dead beautiful pictures.
We all know why. Exoplanets are just too small to directly image, other than as a miniscule fraction of a pixel, or perhaps some day as a full pixel. That leaves it up to artists, modelers and the travel poster-makers of the Jet Propulsion Lab to help the public to visualize what exoplanets might be like. Given the dramatic successes of the Hubble Space Telescope in imaging distant galaxies, and of telescopes like those on the Cassini mission to Saturn and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, this is no small competitive disadvantage. And this explains why the first picture of this column has nothing to do with exoplanets (though billions of them are no doubt hidden in the image somewhere.)
The problem is all too apparent in these two images of Pluto — one taken by the Hubble and the other by New Horizons telescope as the satellite zipped by.
Pluto is about 4.7 billion miles away. The nearest star, and as a result the nearest possible planet, is 25 trillion miles away. Putting aside for a minute the very difficult problem of blocking out the overwhelming luminosity of a star being cross by the orbiting planet you want to image, you still have an enormous challenge in terms of resolving an image from that far away.
While current detection methods have been successful in confirming more than 2,000 exoplanets in the past 20 years (with another 2,000-plus candidates awaiting confirmation or rejection), they have been extremely limited in terms of actually producing images of those planetary fireflies in very distant headlights. And absent direct images — or more precisely, light from those planets — the amount of information gleaned about the chemical makeup of their atmospheres as been limited, too.… Read more