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Planet imaging instrument developed by Arizona State professor up and running

Gemini Planet Imager's first light image of the light scattered by a disk of dust orbiting the young star HR4796A. This narrow ring is thought to be dust from asteroids or comets left behind by planet formation; some scientists have theorized that the sharp edge of the ring is defined by an unseen planet. (Photo by Marshall Perrin, Space Telescope Science Institute)

PHOENIX -- An Arizona State University professor has been developing a tool for analyzing planets and stars for nearly 10 years, and the school announced Tuesday the instrument is up and running.

The instrument is called Gemini Planet Imager (GPI). It was designed to analyze distant planets that are near bright stars. The tool is being used on one of the world's biggest telescopes, the 8-meter-long Gemini South telescope in Chile.

Jennifer Patience, an astrophysicist and associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU, has been working with a GPI team for almost 10 years. Recently, she and her students worked with the GPI team to read the instrument's initial data so to help calibrate the device and ensure its best performance.

The GPI, which is about the size of a small car, can see planets a 1,000,000 times fainter than their neighboring stars, which helps researchers study them in great detail. The instrument began taking observations in November 2013.

The instrument took some test images of Jupiter's moon Europa, and the GPI team released the photos Tuesday at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.

"The early science images from GPI are spectacular and are an indication of the discoveries to come from the planet search survey that will commence this year," Patience said. "The ability to both image planets and investigate their atmospheres with a spectrum from GPI is a very exciting combination."

In 2014, the GPI team will begin looking at 600 young stars to see what giant planets orbit them.

Click here to find out more about the GPI.

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