Extrasolar Planets

by Created: 01 Jun 1995 Updated: 24 May 2014

Extrasolar planets are planets outside our solar system. At the time, no one had imaged one optically, although several had been detected indirectly through astrometry and other means. Dr. Dave Van Buren and I spent a few nights at Palomar Observatory using an experimental new infrared detector to look for planets outside our solar system in the hopes of capturing one in an image.

The IR detector was called MIRLIN, by Michael Ressler, an early predecessor of the MIRI detector in the James Webb Space Telescope. I think we were among the first to use it.

As a boy, I had dreamed of someday visiting Palomar Observatory, and the fact that Caltech operates it was one of the factors in my decision to go there for undergraduate school, so it was a real treat to get to spend a few nights observing on it. Observers sit in a small, cramped room filled to the brim with electronics and computers. You can walk out into the room housing the 200” Hale Telescope, which was the world’s largest telescope from 1948-1993, and also onto the catwalk around the outside of the dome, about 5 stories above the ground. But, most of the time you’re in the room, working the equipment, pointing the telescope, and looking through the TV screen.

We hoped to use the new instrument’s capabilities to find the first-ever infrared image of a planet around a distant star, and Dave had a long list of Gliese stars and other candidates for us to look at. Alas, our search came up empty.

Around this same time, we also worked with Dave’s wife, Susan Terebey, to simulate and then use Hubble Space Telescope to search for extrasolar planets.