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Scopes See Exoplanets and Violent Astrophysics

Palomar Observatory's Project 1640 on the Hale Telescope allows astronomers to directly observe exoplanets, whereas the gamma-ray sensitive HESS 2 in Namibia tracks violent astrophysical events such as supernovae and flaring black holes. John Matson reports

At two high-altitude sites, in two countries, two very different telescope projects have come online to scan the skies.

At Palomar Observatory in San Diego County, a new instrument on the Hale Telescope is looking for exoplanets. Called Project 1640, it’s designed to blot out the infrared light of a star, without blocking the light from anything else. That allows astronomers to directly observe exoplanets, even though the star is thousands or even millions of times brighter.

Most known exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means, but planetary scientists believe they can learn a lot more from direct observation.

Over in Namibia, meanwhile, a new telescope called HESS II is seeking out higher-energy photons. The 28-meter telescope is designed to identify very high energy gamma rays. And gamma rays, the most energetic kind of electromagnetic radiation, already pack a pretty good wallop.

The gamma rays HESS sees are mostly by-products of extremely violent astrophysical events such as supernovae and flaring black holes.

HESS and Project 1640 differ in method and motive. But for astronomers studying exoplanets or extreme astrophysics, the new projects represent two more eyes on the sky.

—John Matson

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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