In 2008, HR8799 was the first exoplanet system ever to be directly imaged. Now, the famous system stars in its very own video.
Utilization Notes Northwestern University astrophysicist Jason Wang has over the past 12 years collected amazing time-lapse video of a family of four. planets—each mass larger than Jupiter—orbits their star. The video gives viewers an unprecedented glimpse into the motion of the planets.
“It’s usually hard to see planets in orbit,” Wang said. “For example, it is not clear that Jupiter or Mars orbit our Sun because we live in the same system and we do not have a top-down view. Astronomical events happen either too quickly or too slowly to capture on film. But this video shows planets moving on a human time scale. I hope it enables people to enjoy something wondrous.”
An expert in imaging exoplanets, Wang is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA).
HR8799 is a compact star located 133.3 light-years from Earth in the constellation Pegasus. Although this seems far-fetched, HR8799 is considered to be within our “solar neighborhood”. Compared to our Sun, HR8799 is 1.5 times larger and about 5 times brighter. It is also much smaller. At about 30 million years old, the system formed after the extinction of the dinosaurs.
In November 2008, HR8799 made history as the first system to have its planets directly imaged. Wang, who was instantly enamored with the system, has been watching it ever since. He and his colleagues applied for the time at the W.M. Keck Observatory, located atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to observe the system each year.
After seven years of observations, Wang collected imaging data to create the system’s first time-lapse video. Now, armed with 12 years of imaging data, Wang has released the updated video, which shows the entire time period in a condensed 4.5-second time-lapse.
“There is nothing to gain scientifically from watching tropical systems in time-lapse video, but it helps others to appreciate what we are studying,” Wang said. “It can be difficult to explain the nuances of science in words. But showing science in action helps others understand its importance.”
To create the video, Wang used a technique called “Adaptive opticsto correct image blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere. He also used specialized tools called “coronagraphs” and processing algorithms to suppress glare from the central star of the system. (This is why the video has a black circle in the middle. Without this, the glare would be too intense to see the planets.) Dance around it.) Finally, Wang used some form of video processing to fill in the data gaps and smooth out the motion of the planets.Otherwise, the planets would appear to jump rather than spin smoothly through space.
The final product shows four faint points sailing around its central star. Although they look like just fireflies, the planets are actually huge gas giants. Wang compares them to “extended versions” of Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus. It takes about 45 Earth years for the planet closest to the star to make one revolution. On the other hand, it takes nearly 500 years for the outermost planet to follow the same path.
For Wang, exploring space through videos is the best part of his job. Next, Wang and his collaborators examine the light emitted by the star and its planets in order to better understand what they are made of.
“In astrophysics, most of the time we analyze data or test hypotheses,” he said. “But that’s the fun part of science. It inspires awe.”
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