When will telescopes see exoplanets directly?

03 October 2010



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?

Christopher Wilson


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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