Astronomy C 10, anyone? Anyone? (Bueller?)

Whether or not you’re in Alexei Filippenko’s class, you’ve probably heard about the enthralling astronomical research at UC Berkeley. In fact, our very own Geoff Marcy was a member of one of the main teams that discovered the first of these little beauties. Extrasolar planets (or exoplanets, if you want to get cute) are planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. And guess what? We’ve just gotten one step closer to getting a better look at them.

That’s right, folks—to infinity and beyond is not looking so silly anymore. Exoplanets (first discovered in the early ’90s) are being discovered so quickly now that they seem to crop up all over like those pesky rodents in Whack-A-Mole. Unfortunately, though, most of them are extremely hard to image once they’ve been detected. As the astronomy department chair James Graham puts it: “It’s much worse than seeing a firefly next to a searchlight.”

Luckily, astronomers are nothing if not endearingly stubborn in their quest for better technology. Graham and his colleagues have developed a new adaptive optics system called the Gemini Planet Imager (for $18 million, in case you’re interested). It should be working by 2011.

Exoplanets are our best shot at finding life outside our solar system. Getting a picture of them moves us one step closer to our possible alien neighbors. So ready your Vulcan salute and your favorite split infinitive. We are about to boldly see where no person has seen before.

Image source: Sir Mervs under Creative Commons
The Firefly and the Searchlight [Science Matters @ Berkeley]


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