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OT: News: VLT captures first direct spectrum of an exoplanet.

Von: Ye Old One (usenet@mcsuk.net) [Profil]
Datum: 13.01.2010 16:58
Message-ID: <kuqrk5d6ssbh4v3mup5f93t9dosourvmbf@4ax.com>
Newsgroup: uk.singles
VLT captures first direct spectrum of an exoplanet
Wed, 01/13/2010 - 15:36 - NLN


"The spectrum of a planet is like a fingerprint. It provides key
information about the chemical elements in the planet's atmosphere,"
says Markus Janson, lead author of a paper reporting the new findings.
"With this information, we can better understand how the planet formed
and, in the future, we might even be able to find tell-tale signs of
the presence of life."

The researchers obtained the spectrum of a giant exoplanet that orbits
the bright, very young star HR 8799. The system is at about 130
light-years from Earth. The star has 1.5 times the mass of the Sun,
and hosts a planetary system that resembles a scaled-up model of our
own Solar System. Three giant companion planets were detected in 2008
by another team of researchers, with masses between 7 and 10 times
that of Jupiter. They are between 20 and 70 times as far from their
host star as the Earth is from the Sun; the system also features two
belts of smaller objects, similar to our Solar System's asteroid and
Kuiper belts.

"Our target was the middle planet of the three, which is roughly ten
times more massive than Jupiter and has a temperature of about 800
degrees Celsius," says team member Carolina Bergfors. "After more than
five hours of exposure time, we were able to tease out the planet's
spectrum from the host star's much brighter light."

This is the first time the spectrum of an exoplanet orbiting a normal,
almost Sun-like star has been obtained directly. Previously, the only
spectra to be obtained required a space telescope to watch an
exoplanet pass directly behind its host star in an "exoplanetary
eclipse," and then the spectrum could be extracted by comparing the
light of the star before and after. However, this method can only be
applied if the orientation of the exoplanet's orbit is exactly right,
which is true for only a small fraction of all exoplanetary systems.
The present spectrum, on the other hand, was obtained from the ground,
using ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), in direct observations that do
not depend on the orbit's orientation.

As the host star is several thousand times brighter than the planet,
this is a remarkable achievement. "It's like trying to see what a
candle is made of, by observing it from a distance of two kilometres
when it's next to a blindingly bright 300 Watt lamp," says Janson.

The discovery was made possible by the infrared instrument NACO,
mounted on the VLT, and relied heavily on the extraordinary
capabilities of the instrument's adaptive optics system [3]. Even more
precise images and spectra of giant exoplanets are expected both from
the next generation instrument SPHERE, to be installed on the VLT in
2011, and from the European Extremely Large Telescope.

The newly collected data show that the atmosphere enclosing the planet
is still poorly understood. "The features observed in the spectrum are
not compatible with current theoretical models," explains co-author
Wolfgang Brandner. "We need to take into account a more detailed
description of the atmospheric dust clouds, or accept that the
atmosphere has a different chemical composition from that previously

The astronomers hope to soon get their hands on the fingerprints of
the other two giant planets so they can compare, for the first time,
the spectra of three planets belonging to the same system. "This will
surely shed new light on the processes that lead to the formation of
planetary systems like our own," concludes Janson.


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