Science Questions

When will telescopes see exoplanets directly?

Sat, 2nd Oct 2010

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Question

Chris Wilson asked:

Hi,

 

I was just reading about the new earth-like planet that was discovered, and got to thinking; I know that as of right now, we can only detect these things through "wobbles" in their suns as a result of their gravitational pull. Well, this is all well and good, and I know that we can get a good idea of the type of planet as a result of this, but my question is this:

 

How long will/could it be before we can get a closer look at these planets? I mean, not just "guesstimates" but actual facts? Within our lifetimes? No? I mean, is it, or is it not plausible to build a say, "Ultra-Hubble telescope", and actually be able to peer out at the surfaces of these planets (i.e. Gliese 581g)? It seems to me that this would solve the great "are we alone" question. Is it just financing that is holding us back from building one of these massive telescopes that I'm picturing? Or is there some technical reason that it is not possible?

 

Thanks,

Christopher Wilson

 

 

 

Answer

We posed this question to Steven Vogt from the University of California, Santa Cruz...

Steven -   Well that will happen fairly quickly.  I don't know if it will be with this particular system, but we’re working very hard on what are called ‘extreme adaptive optic systems’ for our ground based telescopes that remove the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere and seeing as it were, to allow us to look in real close.  And so, we have a number of projects like that underway that will be used with large telescopes to be able to see in very close.  For something like this which is in so very close, it will probably take a space based effort where we actually build fleets of telescopes that operate together in space just like a flying interferometer.  They can then block out the intense light from the star and allow you to see in very closely and that's probably 10 to 20 years away.

Chris -   But it’s still close enough that in our lifetimes, we’re actually going to begin to really see places resembling the Earth, but not in our own solar system which is originally a kind of gob smacking thought, isn’t it?

Steven -   Yes, this is a long way away from our solar system even though it’s a very nearby star.  It’s 20 light years away.  What’s even more exciting to me is that one could imagine using nuclear pulse rocket technology - basically take all the world’s war heads, nuclear warheads, and load them up into a rocket ship - you could get up to about a tenth of the speed of light in about a month and as a tenth to the speed of light, you could reach this thing in 200 years, and actually you know, send a cell phone out there and take pictures and send it back.  Send back tweets, so that would be kind of fun to do.

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Chris Wilson asked the Naked Scientists: Hi, I was just reading about the new earth-like planet that was discovered, and got to thinking; I know that as of right now, we can only detect these things through "wobbles" in their suns as a result of their gravitational pull. Well, this is all well and good, and I know that we can get a good idea of the type of planet as a result of this, but my question is this: How long will/could it be before we can get a closer look at these planets? I mean, not just "guesstimates" but actual facts? Within our lifetimes? No? I mean, is it, or is it not plausible to build a say, "Ultra-Hubble telescope", and actually be able to peer out at the surfaces of these planets (i.e. Gliese 581g)? It seems to me that this would solve the great "are we alone" question. Is it just financing that is holding us back from building one of these massive telescopes that I'm picturing? Or is there some technical reason that it is not possible? If you know the answer to this, or can direct me to someone who does, please let me know! Thanks, Christopher Wilson What do you think? Chris Wilson , Fri, 1st Oct 2010

In general they are not visible directly  but the first visible detections have been made  see

     http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/289899main_fomalhaut_actual_HI.jpg

Equipment is being designed that will make this more possible in future

it is unlikely that significant images of planet surfaces will ever be possible however spectra of the light from planets will reveal a lot of information

Some spectra of planets have also been taken by effectively subtracting the spectrum of the host star to reveal them. Soul Surfer, Fri, 1st Oct 2010

Great information Soul Surfer!

I'm always amazed at how rapidly this field has evolved. It's not long since we didn't even have evidence for any other planets, other that the local ones of course. Geezer, Fri, 1st Oct 2010

Hi Steven scientist try smoking your nuclear rockets perhaps they will get you high enough so you think that's what happened and tweet that back to yourself in 200 years. Who sold you your science degree? Steven hawk skin, Sat, 11th Jul 2015

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