Searching For New Worlds
Tools for taking pictures of distant planets
Our Sun isn't the only star with planets around it. Astronomers have detected planets orbiting more than 200 other stars, although they've never seen them directly. Through a telescope, a planet's faint glow is hidden by the bright light of the star. But with updated versions of tools such as interferometers and coronagraphs, astronomers may soon take the first pictures of planets orbiting other stars and begin learning more about these distant worlds.
This exhibit presented the science and techniques behind the study of planets orbiting nearby stars. Two historically important astronomical instruments, the Michelson Interferometer, which is on loan from the Mt. Wilson Institute and the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution of Washington; and the Johns Hopkins Adaptive Optics Coronagraph, which is now part of the Museum's permanent collection, were presented to illustrate the technical difficulties of modern astronomical investigations. In the 1920s A. A. Michelson developed and used the interferometer to measure stellar diameters for the first time. In the 1990s Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer, Assistant Curator of Astrophysics, and colleagues used the Hopkins coronagraph to discover the first brown dwarf.
This exhibit, part of the Education and Public Outreach efforts of NASA’s Navigator Program, was made possible through a grant from NASA’s Michelson Science Center.
The large girder in the exhibition is the Michelson Stellar Interferometer, a tool built by Albert Michelson (right) in the 1920s that boosted the power of an ordinary telescope.
A coronagraph attached to a telescope can eliminate nearly all the starlight, revealing dim objects nearby.
Dr. Oppenheimer is a comparative exoplanetary scientist: she studies planets orbiting stars other than the Sun.
Behind the scenes photos of the interferometer and coronagraph being constructed and transported.
Online resources for the Exoplanets exhibition