By Angela Beggs
It’s official: after ten years in the making, the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) – or planet hunter if you will – is now up and running in Chile.
The new Gemini takes the title of the world’s most advanced piece of equipment for capturing images and analysing planets around stars. It will help to provide astronomers with new data about a planets atmospheric makeup and characteristics.
Gemini Planet Imager’s first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A. Image: Processing by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute.
This paparazzo of space can snap those hard to see planets that live next to big, bright stars, and probe their atmospheres, even if they have been known to be a little camera shy in the past. It will also help to hunt down and study the dusty disks around young stars.
It is the most advanced instrument to be deployed on one of the world’s biggest telescopes – the 8-meter Gemini South telescope in Chile – and the first images are almost ten times better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, users are seeing planets that previously took up to an hour to detect.
Our scientists contributed to the Gemini’s calibration interferometer (one of the four major systems that make up the GPI) by creating state-of-the-art beam splitters.
What’s a beam splitter you ask? It’s an optical device used to split a beam of light into two. Splitting the beam allows for light from the same source to be used for dual purposes simultaneously, in this case, being a reference point and detecting data.
The beam splitters are used in pairs, and there are a total of eight on board – each one is about the size of a two dollar coin.
The landscape around Cerro Pachon as seen through the Gemini South Dome structure.
Our Precision Optics team was able to draw on their many years of experience in optical fabrication, coating and metrology to help develop these devices.
When they’re not busy helping to create elements that can spy on space, the team specialise in the design and production of ultra-high precision optical systems and components for use in areas like defence, security and medicine. You might even be familiar with their quest to redefine the standard kilogram.
So while the new Gemini might not be great news for the young ‘camera shy’ planets of galaxies far, far away, it’s an astronomical step towards finding out how planets form and evolve and understanding what their atmospheres are like.