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Planet-hunting telescope camera returns first images of exoplanets

Planet-hunting telescope camera returns first images of exoplanets
Gemini Planet Imager's first light image of Beta Pictoris b, a planet orbiting the star Beta Pictoris. The star, Beta Pictoris, is blocked in this image by a mask so its light doesn't interfere with the light of the planet. Credit: Processing by Christian Marois, NRC Canada.

WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- U.S. astronomers say the world's most powerful exoplanet-hunting camera has turned it eye to the skies and returned its first images.

The Gemini Planet Imager, mounted on one of the world's biggest telescopes -- the 26-foot Gemini South telescope in Chile -- was built to detect infrared (heat) radiation from young Jupiter-like planets in wide orbits around other stars, they said.

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The GPI, after nearly a decade of development, construction and testing, carried out its first observations in November.

"Even these early first-light images are almost a factor of 10 better than the previous generation of instruments. In one minute, we are seeing planets that used to take us an hour to detect," Bruce Macintosh of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the team that built the instrument, said in a Gemini Observatory release Tuesday.

For its first observations, the GPI targeted previously known planetary systems, including the well-known Beta Pictoris system, obtaining the first-ever spectrum of the very young planet Beta Pictoris b.

"Most planets that we know about to date are only known because of indirect methods that tell us a planet is there, a bit about its orbit and mass, but not much else," Macintosh said. "With GPI we directly image planets around stars -- it's a bit like being able to dissect the system and really dive into the planet's atmospheric makeup and characteristics."

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The first GPI images were released Tuesday at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington.

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