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Gemini: Poised for the exploration of worlds beyond

Plans for the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) which will explore exoplanets starting in 2011.

Trying to directly image exo-solar planets star has often been compared to “trying to detect a firefly flying in front of a spotlight.” This is because the overwhelming amount of light emitted by the star is any many times brighter than the meager emission from the much smaller planet. To combat this modern planet hunters have had to use exotic instrumentation and implement complicated observing techniques to have any chance at discovering a new planet (or three). In fact, even using the latest technology, like adaptive optics, the planets around HR 8799 were directly detectable only because they are massive, young, and their orbits carry them relatively far from their central star.

To combat the difficulties inherent with planet searching a team led by Dr. Macintosh is constructing a much more advanced adaptive optics system designed from the beginning to block the light of bright stars and reveal even fainter planets. Known as the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI, http://gpi.berkeley.edu), this new system will be a hundred times more sensitive than current instruments and will be able to image planets similar to Jupiter around nearby stars. GPI is scheduled to be deployed on the Gemini South telescope in Chile in 2011.

GPI is an instrument that builds on the technologies and observing techniques that we use with our current generation of instruments NIRI, NICI and NIFS and our adaptive optics system Altair. NIRI is an all-purpose near-IR imager/spectrometer that offers researchers a versatile platform to conduct broad surveys or targeted searches for new planetary systems. NICI is a dedicated planet-hunter that employs a coronograph and dual-channel imaging to find planets, especially gaseous objects like Jupiter. NIFS is a near-infrared integral field spectrograph that will undoubtedly be used to help characterize the atmospheres on planets that are discovered using various techniques.

Of the current generation of instruments, NICI is truly a dedicated planet-hunter. NICI is built around a dual-channel imager that takes two images of a target simultaneously. By carefully analyzing the resulting images, scientists using the instrument can easily identify planets similar to Jupiter around other stars. The instrument will primarily be used in its coronographic mode where a small mechanical spot is used to block the light from the central star in a planetary system. In addition, NICI has a built-in high-order adaptive optics system to help correct for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. NICI will also be used as part of a dedicated planet-searching campaign that should start at Gemini South soon. A total of 50 observing nights have been allocated to the NICI campaign.


NICI on Gemini South on the side-port ready to explore exoplanets...