High school student, AI help astrophysicist create timelapse of exoplanet

The longest timelapse video of an exoplanet has been created by a physicist at Northwestern University in the US.

Beta Pictoris b is the lead in the cosmic film. The planet is 12 times the mass of Jupiter and orbits a star 63 light-years from Earth. Beta Pictoris b orbits its host star at a distance 10 times greater than Earth’s orbit around our Sun – roughly the same distance as Saturn.

Located in the Pictor constellation, the star Beta Pictoris is a very young, bright star about 1.75 times bigger than the Sun.

The interstellar movie takes 17 years of data collected between 2003 and 2020, condensing it into a 10-second video.

From our vantage point on Earth, the orbit is “near-edge on”, meaning the planet can be seen dipping behind and coming up in front of its central star.

“We need another six years of data before we can see one whole orbit,” says assistant professor and member of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) Jason Wang, the astrophysicist who led the work. “We’re almost there. Patience is key.”

Wang constructed his first timelapse footage of the system showing five years of the planet’s journey. Enlisting the help of Malachi Noel, a student at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, Wang updated the video.

Data was drawn from three instruments – one at the Gemini Observatory in Hawai‘i and two at the European Southern Observatory.

Noel used AI image processing to gather the archival data and make it uniform to produce the film.

“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,” Wang explains. “The algorithm smooths out that jitter, so we can imagine how the planet would look if we did see it every day.”

Blurring caused by Earth’s atmosphere was corrected, and an “x” placed on the video to indicate where the planet should be when Beta Pictoris b passes behind the star or is outshone by the star’s light when the planet passes in front of it.

Wang is building a catalogue of exoplanet films.

Just last year, Wang released a 12-year timelapse showing four exoplanets orbiting HR 8799 – a star 133 light-years from Earth. The four planets orbiting HR 8799 are all “super Jupiters” estimated to be between 7 and 10 times heavier than Jupiter.

“A lot of times, in science, we use abstract ideas or mathematical equations,” Wang comments. “But 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.”

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