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<b>Astral Arcs</b><br>Star trails over the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, one of Mauna Kea's thirteen observatories. <br><i>Photo by Richard J. Wainscoat / Photo Resource Hawaii</i>
Vol. 13, no. 3
June/July 2010


View from the Top 

Story by Julia Steele





Photo: Christian Marois, NRC
and Bruce Macintosh, LLNL

The picture of HR 8799
doesn’t look like much. It’s got a mass in the center that’s blocked out, in the way that eyes are blocked out to render mug shots anonymous. It’s got three dots—labeled b, c and d—that are small and fuzzy. All in all, it looks like a screen shot from some early Pong-era video game.


But don’t be fooled. This picture is one of the most significant images ever captured, not for its aesthetic quality, but for what it is. HR 8799 is a star 130 light years from our sun; b, c and d are planets; and this image, captured in 2008, is the first and still the only picture that shows a planetary system orbiting another star.


Yes, for those of you who haven’t been keeping up: The idea that other stars have planets is not a sci-fi plot line any more. There are now 350 known stars with planetary systems, and more are being discovered all the time. The answer to what for eons was a mystery—are there any other solar systems like ours?—is closer by the day. In fact, it now appears that more stars than not have planets, which means that b, c and d are just the beginning. There are likely trillions and trillions of planets out there.


The detection of other planets is only one among many of the amazing discoveries being made in the telescopes on Mauna Kea. The science of astronomy is exploding right now, with new detections being made constantly, and Mauna Kea’s observatories are playing a fundamental role in virtually every one of them. At just over 13,000 feet, high above the atmosphere’s inversion layer where the skies are the clearest and darkest on earth, astronomers from around the world congregate to seek answers to our biggest questions: What’s out there? What created us? Are we alone?


Of course, the astronomers might not frame their questions in quite those ways, looking instead for the gravitational pull on the spiraling arms of a galaxy or a spectra reading of a star composed solely of hydrogen and helium. But make no mistake: Those questions are at the heart of the work being done in Mauna Kea’s thirteen observatories. And the answers coming back are shifting our understanding of the cosmos forever. Out in the middle of the Pacific—in an otherworldly realm where the atmospheric pressure is faint, the warmth is scant and the oxygen is scarce—more of reality is being revealed.