Astronomers Conduct First Remote Reconnaissance of Another Solar System

Project 1640_system image

Researchers have conducted a remote reconnaissance of a distant solar system with a new telescope imaging system that sifts through the blinding light of stars. Using a suite of high-tech instrumentation and software called Project 1640, the scientists collected the first chemical fingerprints, or spectra, of this system’s four red exoplanets, which orbit a star 128 light years away from Earth. A detailed description of the planets—showing how drastically different they are from the known worlds in the universe—was accepted Friday for publication in The Astrophysical Journal


This visualization, produced using the Hayden Planetarium’s Digital Universe—the most comprehensive and scientifically accurate, three-dimensional map of the known universe—shows where the star HR 8799 is in relation to our solar system. It also shows other stars that are known to harbor planetary systems (stars with blue circles around them). HR 8799’s system, which is 128 light years away from Earth, is one of only a couple of these stars that have been imaged, and the only one for which spectroscopy of all the planets has been obtained. Over the next three years, the team will survey many of these other stars in the same manner in which they studied HR 8799.


This video shows the long exposure of the HR 8799 system. The star is at the center of the image, blocked by the coronagraph. Each frame of this movie shows a slightly longer wavelength of light, or color progressing through 30 different wavelengths from 1.0 mm to 1.75 mm in the “near infrared,” colors too red for the human eye to see. The speckles move radially outward from the star because they are an optical effect. Because they move in the movie, and real celestial objects do not change position at different colors on the sky, the planets around this star can be found using software that looks for objects that do not move in this movie.