This 17-year timelapse of an exoplanet orbit is the longest ever made

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A Northwestern University astrophysicist has captured a time-lapse that showcases the exoplanet Beta Pictoris b as it orbits its star. What’s so special about it is that it compresses 17 years of observations into just 10 seconds, making it the longest timelapse of an exoplanet that’s ever been created. It comprises the observation data from 2003 to 2020, revealing the planet completing roughly 75% of its orbit.

Astrophysicist Jason Wang from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences is the one behind this marvelous timelapse. However, he notes that it’s still not done. “We need another six years of data before we can see one whole orbit,” he said in a statement. “We’re almost there. Patience is key.” As you can see in the video, the missing part of the orbit is replaced with a little white mark.

Located about 63 light-years away in the constellation Pictor, Beta Pictoris b orbits its star, Beta Pictoris, at a distance roughly ten times that between Earth and the sun. Although only 20 to 26 million years old, Beta Pictoris outshines and outweighs our sun, as Northwestern explains.

“It’s extremely bright,” Wang explains. ” It’s so big that it’s at the boundary of a planet and a brown dwarf, which are more massive than planets, “And thanks to its brightness, it was easier to spot and an ideal candidate to track over the years.

Malachi Noel, a student from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, played a crucial role in this project. Under Wang’s mentorship since January 2023, Noel used AI-driven image-processing techniques to analyze data from the Gemini Observatory and the European Southern Observatory.

Wang talks about the challenges they had during this process:

“If we just combined the images, the video would look really jittery because we didn’t have continuous viewing of the system every day for 17 years. The algorithm smooths out that jitter, so we can imagine how the planet would look if we did see it every day.”

In conclusion, Wang emphasizes the power of visual representation, saying that, a lot of times, scientists use “abstract ideas or mathematical equations.” However, “something like a movie — that you can see with your own eyes — gives a visceral kind of appreciation for physics that you wouldn’t gain from just looking at plots on a graph.” And if I may add – it also adds interest for us who’re not very scientifically oriented, but enjoy learning and discovering facts about the universe.


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