Grenoble and Planet Hunting with Adaptive Optics

In July I spent four exciting days at the Institut de Planetologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG). Set in a picturesque green valley in the Alps where the rivers Drac and Ilsere merge, this scenic little town in Southern France is well-known for planet hunters.

A charming little town in the French Alps, a European center of adaptive optics development.  Image source:

A charming little town in the French Alps, a European center of adaptive optics development. Image source

The Grenoble group I visited is one of the world leaders in direct imaging of extrasolar planets: over the past decades Jean-Luc Beuzit and his group have developed more and more sophisticated instruments to enhance the sharpness of the images that can be obtained with the largest telescopes. Anne-Marie Lagrange and her group have used these adaptive optics systems to painstakingly search nearby stars (typically within a distance of 250 lightyears) for exoplanets. The group’s outstanding work has led to several exciting and now-classic discoveries: 2MASS1207b, AB Pictoris b, or the planet in the spectacular Beta Pictoris system, a project on which we worked together. During my stay in Grenoble I also enjoyed a memorable dinner hosted by Anne-Marie’s very friendly research group – everyone pinched in in the preparations and soon we enjoyed an amazing set of French dishes. Cheese, red wine, and exoplanets – what a pleasant way to spend an evening!

Planet around a Brown Dwarf?
Anne-Marie and her group made their discoveries with the European Very Large Telescope, a system of four 8m telescopes based at the Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Atacama desert. This telescope and its NACO instrument has discovered more directly imaged exoplanetary systems and planetary mass objects than any other telescope in the world.

Why do we need adaptive optics systems to image planets?

There are three factors that make it extremely difficult – really, almost impossible – to directly image planets around other stars:
1) Planets are inherently faint: unlike stars, planets have no stable internal heat sources apart from the decay of some radioactive isotopes. Therefore, planets are much cooler than stars – and being also much smaller, planets are typically ten million to a billion times fainter than their host stars. This means that the images must be very sensitive to detect them: very large telescopes must be used that can collect a lot of light.

2) By definition, each planet must orbit a star – and because stars are very distant, the planets appear to be extremely close to their host stars, which are always much brighter. Because of the large contrast between the star and its planets, we can only directly image planets that appear the farthest from their stars: those that are on very long orbits. For comparison, a planet at 5.4 AU separation (5.4 times the Earth-Sun separation or 1 times the Sun-Jupiter separation) will appear 5.4/10 = 0.54 arc second from its host star, the equivalent of the apparent size of a penny seen from about 5 miles. The great brightness difference between the star and its planet and the fact that they appear very close mean that an image showing exoplanets must have an extremely high contrast. And, in practice, the highest-contrast images are those that are taken with the highest quality and best-designed telescopes with near-perfect optics.

3) All ground-based telescopes must observe through the terrestrial atmosphere. As we are used to look through the atmosphere at first this may not seem to be a real problem, but it is: Just imagine trying to read time from a wall clock of a swimming pool from underwater – all you see are blurry images. Similarly, images taken even from the highest mountains are blurred by the turbulence of our atmosphere. Although observatories are built at sites that typically have clear skies and relatively calm air layers, the only ways to get truly sharp images is go above the atmosphere (think Hubble Space Telescope) or to build highly complicated adaptive optics systems that correct for the atmospheric turbulence (and even most imperfections of the telescope itself).

The astronomer slang for Adaptive Optics is AO. Although ten years ago astronomical AO systems were still a novelty, nowadays most major telescopes have them. But only the most powerful are capable of providing the image quality needed to hunt for planets.

The most capable systems can correct for changes in the atmosphere and telescope several hundred to a thousand times a second, providing incredibly sharp and stable images.

SPHERE AO system in Grenoble

SPHERE AO system in Grenoble

Perhaps the coolest thing I have seen in Grenoble was perhaps also the least exciting-looking. Tucked in a very large ground-floor laboratory was a room-sized pile of instrument boxes, all connected, and covered with green plastic covers and attached to large tubes and a thick string of cables. The tubes were blowing cold air under the covers to cool what is arguably the most complex adaptive optics system in the world: SPHERE. This highly complex instrument belongs to the next level in adaptive optics design: an Extreme AO system. Extreme AO systems (often called ExAOs) have been in the making for over a decade now with the first experimental one operating at the Palomar 5m telescope (Project 1640). The driver behind ExAO systems is to direct image extrasolar planets: to find them and to study their atmospheres. The European community has been building SPHERE for over 11 years, while the US astronomers have been working on their own ExAO system, the Gemini Planet Imager. Both systems are technological marvels – they are incredibly capable and will soon allow our telescopes to see and study dozens and dozens of new extrasolar planets. Both systems will likely deliver first science early next year and with that a friendly competition will begin for finding new worlds – and will bring us exciting new images and many surprising discoveries.

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