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StarDate: August 8, 2014

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Astronomers have been discovering new planets almost faster than they can count them. They reported more than 750 in the first six months of this year alone, bringing the total number of confirmed planets in other star systems to about 1800.

While the search for exoplanets continues, astronomers are also beefing up their efforts to study the planets they’ve already found. In the last few months, several new instruments have joined that effort.

The telescope used for NESSI, in New MexicoThe telescope used for NESSI, in New MexicoOne of the biggest is the Gemini Planet Imager — an infrared camera attached to an eight-meter telescope in Chile. Scientists are using it to look at 600 target stars. The camera blocks out the light of the stars themselves, allowing it to see planets in orbit around the stars. And once it sees a planet, it’ll break apart the planet’s light to measure its chemical composition and other details.

A similar European instrument entered service in May, also on a large telescope in Chile. In addition to hunting for planets, it’s also looking for rings of dust around its target stars — the raw material for making planets.

And a third new instrument is beginning its work in New Mexico. Known as NESSI, it’ll target about 100 already-known planets that pass in front of their parent stars. Comparing a system’s light when the planet is in front of and behind the star will reveal details about the planet’s chemistry.

These and other projects will help us get to know the many worlds in other solar systems.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014


For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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