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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.
"Now, with Project 1640, we are beginning to turn this tool to the investigation of neighboring exoplanets to learn about the composition, temperature, and other characteristics of their atmospheres." said Charles Beichman, executive director of the NASA Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology.
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."
This research sounds very promising, as the spectroscopy signature tools of project 1640 will be now able to show the complete spectra of exoplanets: