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rendering of an exoplanet

An artistic conception of the Jupiter-like exoplanet, 51 Eridani b, discovered using GPI and seen in the near-infrared light that shows the hot layers deep in its atmosphere glowing through clouds. Image by Danielle Futselaar & Franck Marchis, SETI Institute; courtesy of Quinn Konopacky, UC San Diego

UC San Diego Astronomers to See More Stars with “2020 Vision”

To see stars that are fainter and farther away in the galaxy, astronomers need the goods—telescopes, adaptive optics, fast computers and state-of-the-art detectors. To that end, the Heising-Simons Foundation is delivering. With nearly $1 million in new funding from the foundation, UC San Diego Assistant Professor of Physics Quinn Konopacky is leading an effort to upgrade the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), a high-contrast imaging system for directly detecting and studying Jupiter-like planets. The upgrades will transform GPI into an enhanced imaging system for the new decade.

Image: Quinn Konopacky

Quinn Konopacky

First envisioned in the early 2000s when exoplanets were the hot new discovery in astronomy, GPI is 16 years old and needs a makeover. With the support from Heising-Simons, Konopacky will work in collaboration with research teams from Stanford University, Notre Dame University and Cornell University. The UC San Diego astronomer, in concert with Stanford, will primarily work to improve the imager’s adaptive optics systems. This will give peering eyes the ability to observe stars 20 times fainter than the current visibility limit—a necessary development for scientists to better understand planetary systems and their origins. Heising-Simons is a family foundation based in Los Altos and San Francisco, Calif., known for working with its partners to enable groundbreaking research in science, as well as enhancing education, supporting human rights, and advancing sustainable solutions in climate and clean energy.

“GPI is a successful instrument and has been a workhorse,” said Konopacky, who described it as a sophisticated camera that goes on the back of a telescope, which basically is a big piece of glass used to collect light. “It’s the eyes of the people who use it.”

Users include hundreds of scientists who study astrophysical phenomena—from planets and protoplanetary disks to multiple star systems and the final stages of stellar lives. The instrument enhancements also include a noiseless camera and new optics that can measure the motion of the atmosphere at least three times faster than GPI currently can, and on much fainter astronomical objects. These improvements will be coupled with faster computers, upgraded software and improved masks for blocking the light from the stars to enhance visibility of faint planets that may orbit them.

The new adaptive optics system will be assembled and tested in the laboratories in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UC San Diego. These will be integrated with the entire instrument at Notre Dame University, with personnel from UC San Diego, Stanford, Cornell, Herzberg Astronomy & Astrophysics Research Centre and Space Telescope Science Institute contributing to the effort.

scientist in her laborary at UC San Diego

Quinn Konopacky pictured while working on GPI 1.0 in the laboratory. Photo courtesy of Quinn Konopacky, UC San Diego, Department of Physics

GPI 2.0 will provide access to an extensive scientific landscape, ranging from studies of small bodies in the solar system to probing the winds from supermassive black holes in nearby galaxies. To date, Konopacky and her team have used GPI in their nearly completed Gemini Planet Imager Exoplanet Survey—a survey of 530 nearby stars to discover new Jovian exoplanets. These are basically large balls of gas, like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which orbit far from the sun.

Built by a consortium of institutions in the U.S. and Canada, GPI has been in regular operation on the Gemini South Telescope in Chile since 2014. It currently is the only high contrast imager available to the entire U.S. and Canadian communities.

“The Heising-Simons Foundation offered this amazing opportunity that connects with its interests in exoplanet science and supporting women scientists, and I thought it was a fantastic fit,” said Konopacky, noting that she came of age as a scientist during the first era of exoplanet discovery.

According to Konopacky, the timeline for enhancing the imager is relatively quick. GPI is scheduled to be taken off the Gemini South telescope in August 2020, with the upgrades taking place afterward.

“This will allow us to hit the ground running with the actual hardware installation and testing, which will take place primarily in 2020 and 2021. We anticipate that the instrument will be ready for installation on Gemini North in 2022,” she said.

Konopacky said that the fast timescale of the upgrade is ideally suited for UC San Diego graduate students, who will have the opportunity to participate in commissioning a state-of-the-art, facility-grade instrument and to build collaborative relationships with veteran instrumentalists.

This philanthropic gift from the Heising-Simons Foundation contributes to the Campaign for UC San Diego— a university-wide comprehensive fundraising effort concluding in 2022. Philanthropic partners help UC San Diego enhance student support, ensure student success, transform the campus, connect our community, and redefine health care and science on a global scale. To learn more about giving opportunities, go to the UC San Diego Division of Physical Sciences giving page.