New telescope chip offers clear view of alien planets

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Scientists have developed a new optical chip for a telescope that enables astronomers to have a clear view of alien planets that may support life.

Seeing a planet outside the solar system which is close to its host sun, similar to Earth, is very difficult with today's standard astronomical instruments due to the brightness of the sun.

Associate Professor Steve Madden from The Australian National University (ANU) said the new chip removes light from the host sun, allowing astronomers for the first time to take a clear image of the planet.

"The ultimate aim of our work with astronomers is to be able to find a planet like Earth that could support life," said Dr Madden from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering. 

"To do this we need to understand how and where planets form inside dust clouds, and then use this experience to search for planets with an atmosphere containing ozone, which is a strong indicator of life."

Physicists and astronomers at ANU worked on the optical chip with researchers at the University of Sydney and the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Dr Madden said the optical chip worked in a similar way to noise cancelling headphones.

"This chip is an interferometer that adds equal but opposite light waves from a host sun which cancels out the light from the sun, allowing the much weaker planet light to be seen," he said.

PhD student Harry-Dean Kenchington Goldsmith, who built the chip at the ANU Laser Physics Centre, said the technology works like thermal imaging that fire fighters rely on to see through smoke.

"The chip uses the heat emitted from the planet to peer through dust clouds and see planets forming. Ultimately the same technology will allow us to detect ozone on alien planets that could support life," said Mr Kenchington Goldsmith from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.

The innovation builds on over 10 years of research on specialised optical materials and devices that has been supported through CUDOS, a centre of excellence funded by the Australian Research Council.

The research is being presented at the Australian Institute of Physics Congress in Brisbane this week.

Related news stories

A plasma thruster, developed at ANU for use on miniature satellites, is being used to look for evidence of life on distant planets – but not in the way you might expect.  The system, called Pocket Rocket, is not powering a satellite to visit planets as they orbit  distant stars. Although...
A plasma thruster, developed at ANU for use on miniature satellites, is being used to look for evidence of life on distant planets – but not in the way you might...
Physicists at the ANU Research School of Physics have made extremely efficient microscopic lasers, smaller than the width of a hair - smaller, even, than the wavelength of the light they produce. These nanolasers will power photonics - smaller, faster technology that uses laser light instead of electronics...
Physicists at the ANU Research School of Physics have made extremely efficient microscopic lasers, smaller than the width of a hair - smaller,...
The first-ever discovery of rare plutonium-244 on earth has scientists rethinking the origins of the elements on our planet. The tiny traces of radioactive plutonium-244 were found in ocean crust alongside radioactive iron-60. The two isotopes are evidence of violent cosmic events in the vicinity of earth...
The first-ever discovery of rare plutonium-244 on earth has scientists rethinking the origins of the elements on our planet. The tiny traces...
Scientists at ANU have designed a back-to-front filter which uses lasers to process clouds of atoms. The device is back-to-front because it creates mirrors made of laser beams that reflect atoms. It is a reversed version of the well-known Fabry-Perot Interferometer, which uses mirrors to reflect lasers...
Scientists at ANU have designed a back-to-front filter which uses lasers to process clouds of atoms. The device is back-to-front because it creates...

Updated:  24 May 2022/ Responsible Officer:  Director, RSPhys/ Page Contact:  Physics Webmaster