The first remote reconnaissance of another solar system!

Posted: March 14th, 2013 in astronomy, science, space
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Cool! This is really cool!

And here it is… one of Project 1640’s direct images of the HR 8799 planetary system, located a mere 128 light years from Earth:

Project 1640's direct image of the HR 8799 planetary system, 128 light years from Earth.

This image of the HR 8799 planets was taken with starlight optically suppressed and data processing conducted to remove residual starlight. The star is at the center of the blackened circle in the image. The four spots indicated with the letters b through e are the planets. This is a composite image using 30 wavelengths of light and was obtained over a period of 1.25 hours on June 14 and 15, 2012. Credit: Project 1640

I like this.

This Project 1640 that scientists led by Ben R. Oppenheimer at the American Museum of Natural History cooked up is most impressive.

Ben R. Oppenheimer is associate curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department at the American Museum of Natural History.

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.

I’m thinking that this success will be repeated quite often in future. It seems likely to my way of thinking that most stars would have a planetary system as standard equipment if the disc accretion theory is right. There are, it would seem, on cursory inspection… a lot of stars.

1640 instrument in the Hale scope.

This photo shows the Project 1640 instrument in the telescope dome of the 200-inch Hale Telescope at Palomar Observatory, prior to being installed for observations. Credit: Palomar Observatory/S. Kardel

The instrument, which uses all 200 inches of the nicely formed optics within the world-renowned Hale telescope at Palomar Observatory in California, has 200 of those stars listed in its target itinerary.

The mission is a three-year survey, launched in June 2012. The 200 stars in the list are all within about 150 light years of our solar system.

The project involves researchers from the California Institute of Technology, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cambridge University, New York University, and the Space Telescope Science Institute, in addition to Oppenheimer’s team at the Museum.

The image above is not in the visual range, as the instrument is a spectrograph. It reveals the chemical composition of objects in its field of view. This is vital data which shows what a planet, or at least its atmosphere, is made out of. And that means that it can detect if a planet has or is capable of having life onboard. How cool is that?

These four, which had actually been imaged before this development, are not candidates for life as we know it, unfortunately but they are intriguing as it would appear that they are quite weird!

I like that, too! Ha!

The results are “quite strange,” Oppenheimer said. “These warm, red planets are unlike any other known object in our universe. All four planets have different spectra, and all four are peculiar. The theorists have a lot of work to do now.”


“The spectra of these four worlds clearly show that they are far too toxic and hot to sustain life as we know it,” said co-author Ian Parry, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge University. “But the really exciting thing is that one day, the techniques we’ve developed will give us our first secure evidence of the existence of life on a planet outside our solar system.”


In addition to revealing unique planets, the research debuts a new capability to observe and rapidly characterize exoplanetary systems in a routine manner, something that has eluded astronomers until now because the light that stars emit is tens of millions to billions of times brighter than the light given off by planets. This makes directly imaging and analyzing exoplanets extremely difficult: as Oppenheimer says, “It’s like taking a single picture of the Empire State Building from an airplane that reveals the height of the building as well as taking a picture of a bump on the sidewalk next to it that is as high as a couple of bacteria.”

I am excited by the implications of this remarkable development in spectroscopic instrumentation. This is going to give us some fabulous things to think about. We can only hope that the results that I expect will eventually show themselves will do wonders for the inspiration of many and trigger a renewed sense of the need to explore. Exploration is a wonderful thing.

Read more at:

To view the science paper and supporting images, go to:

To see where HR 8799 is in relation to Earth, watch this Digital Universe visualization:

American Museum of Natural History (

Enjoy… and wonder!


  1. I’m most impressed. I wonder if this process used to discover all those extra-solar planets they’ve been finding over the last 10 years?

    • iggymak says:

      Not sure… some of the latest ones were possibly by some similar rig. As mentioned these planets had been imaged before, (see the PDF, the very 1st link), but they could only get partial info on the outermost one due to the brightness of the sun there.

      That’s the awesome thing at play here. The suite of imaging software they’ve written can filter the sun out without any side effects so they can finally really see what’s up there. Look how close that innermost planet is!

      I think the earliest sightings were by looking for occultations and positional analysis to detect the faint “wobble” caused by a planet’s gravity.

      Peace, Anthony!


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