Directly imaging exoplanets is both scientifically exciting but notoriously challenging. Scientifically, obtaining images of rocky planets in the habitable zones of stars is key to finding if and how life developed outside the solar system. Large-scale biological activity can modify the chemical composition of the planet's atmosphere and its surface properties, both of which can be studied by spectrophotometry. The measurement is however extremely challenging, as the planet light is considerably fainter that the host star's light, and the angular separation between the two objects is about 0.1 arcsecond or less.
Conventional imaging systems cannot overcome the high star to planet contrast, and unusual optics are required for imaging exoplanets. Dr. Guyon will describe such systems (coronagraphs) and the upcoming scientific opportunities associated with their deployment on ground-based telescopes and in space. He will show that ground-based extremely large telescopes (ELTs) will have the ability to directly image and spectroscopically characterize rocky planets in the habitable zones of nearby M-type stars, thus providing scientific evidence for (or against) the presence of life outside our solar system. Space telescopes operating in optical light are well suited to target Earth-like planets around Sun-like stars.
Dr. Guyon will also describe the PANOPTES (Panoptic Astronomical Networked OPtical observatory for Transiting Exoplanet Survey) project, aimed at supporting a world-wide network of small robotic digital cameras built by citizen scientists and schools to identify a large number of transiting exoplanets.