Mat KaplanJan 14, 2014

Planetary Radio: The Gemini Planet Imager

Featuring GPI PI Bruce Macintosh and Astronomer Franck Marchis

The score: 1,060 exoplanets confirmed, 100 billion yet to be discovered.  And that’s just in our galaxy.  We have our work cut out for us. 

This week on Planetary Radio, a new and impressive tool for actually seeing many of these worlds, not just inferring their existence.  The Gemini Planet Imager is now part of the big Gemini South Observatory, not far from where I visited ALMA in the dry, northern highlands of Chile.  Principal Investigator Bruce Macintosh and Public Officer Franck Marchis tell us about the spectacularly successful “first light” performance of the GPI, or, as they call it, “G-Pi” (or Gee! Pie!, according to taste).

Physicist Bruce is finishing a stint at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs before he heads to Stanford University.  Franck, a previous guest of the show, is a Senior Planetary Astronomer at the Carl Sagan Center of the SETI Institute. They describe how GPI will do more than show us planets.  It can also find the rings of dust surrounding stars that will become planets.  And its amazing resolution can give us views within our solar system that previously could only have been seen in close up by visiting spacecraft. 

Perhaps most important is the path GPI has forged for similar instruments on future behemoths like the Giant Magellan Telescope and the Thirty Meter Telescope, both of which we've talked about on the show.  (By the way, Jason Davis has just made a short film about the GMT.)  The GPI's technology will have someday enhance space telescopes that can make use of extreme adaptive optics and other innovations even though they aren’t troubled by pesky atmospheres.

I hope you’ll also enjoy Emily Lakdawalla’s exploration of polar vortices across the solar system.  It seems these phenomena were NOT invented in the last few weeks, as Rush Limbaugh and other climate change deniers insisted.  They’re not even unique to our little planet!  Then there are the beautiful new images from China’s lunar rover that caught Bill Nye’s eye.  You can see them in another of Emily’s blogs.  And it may be your last chance to win a Year In Space wall calendar on What’s Up.  Bruce Betts will be happy to tell you how. 

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