Scientists in California have devised a method for stabilising the light of a star enough to block it and image exoplanets with smaller than previous telescopes. The planets around star HR 8799 had previously been imaged with an eight and a ten metre telescope, but the technique allowed a 1.5m telescope to perform the same feat. The twinkling of the star was first stabilised with adaptive optics and then suppressed using a coronagraph. The scientists now aim to upscale the technique allowing telescopes like the eight-ten metre ones to image more difficult exoplanetary targets. Imaging planets around stars is exceptionally difficult due to the sheer brightness of the shining central bodies compared to their smaller reflective partners.
…and it seems we’ll need every technique available if ground based telescopes are to compete with space based ones in exoplanet spotting. The Kepler space telescope team have won approval to hide data on potential planets until they’ve had a chance to confirm it for themselves, rather than allow others to confirm the observations, despite there being no truly comparable instruments scanning that part of the sky.
It seems those hoping for habitable exoplanets may be forced to turn to other means to speed things up. SETI is one possibility, but WETI is probably the number one choice for those hoping for alien contact.
Even without aliens, however, there have been some strange flashes in the sky. Fireballs above Wisconsin were captured by the webcam of the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science Building, Madison. The meteors are likely to be early members of the Lyrid meteor shower, remnants of Comet Thatcher.
But if you’re looking for more creative aliens, how about those that create strange regular features on planets – like the hexagon at Saturn’s north pole. Researchers at Oxford University have been spinning water round and round with die in it to show that such strange apparitions are just the result of fluid dynamics in a spinning gas giant like Saturn: