In November 2014 we set out to observe 600 young, nearby stars with the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) and the Gemini South telescope. Three years later, the survey has achieved a milestone with more than 400 targets observed.
Each frame in this movie shows an image from GPI. The star itself is partially blocked by a mask known as a coronagraph. Together with adaptive optics correcting for turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, and advanced image processing, we can see the stellar neighborhood where Jupiter-like exoplanets, brown dwarfs, and circumstellar disks could be present.
No instrument is perfect, so every star is surrounded by a residual halo of speckles and noise. But other frames show real astronomical sources. In some frames, the round image of another star is present – a binary companion star or a chance alignment of a distant background star. In others, the faint companions are brown dwarfs or massive exoplanets, up to a million times fainter than their host star. And around several stars, you can see the lines or arcs of disks of planetesimal material, indicating a planetary system still in formation.
Detailed followup observations are needed to determine the nature of each possible companion. That detective work is ongoing, allowing us to continue to explore newly-formed planetary systems within a few hundred light years of our Sun.
Dr. Franck Marchis is a Senior Researcher and Chair of the Exoplanet Group at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute since July 2007. Over the past 19 years, he has dedicated his research to the study of our solar system, specifically the search for asteroids with moons, using mainly ground-based telescopes equipped with adaptive optics.
More recently, he has been also involved in the definition of new generation of AOs for 8 -10 m class telescopes and future Extremely Large Telescopes. He has developed algorithms to process and enhance the quality of images, both astronomical and biological.
His currently involved in the Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey, which consists in imaging exoplanets using an extreme AO system for the Gemini South telescope. This new instrument is capable of imaging and recording spectra of young Jupiter-like exoplanets orbiting around nearby stars.