A new video has captured a huge exoplanet 12 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting its star over a 17-year period, condensed down to a thrilling 10-second time-lapse – and you can definitely take time out of your day to appreciate the fact that you can watch this amazing feat right now on your phone.
The time-lapse video is made from real data showing Beta Pictoris b orbiting its star at a tilted angle. The footage squashes 17 years – about 75 percent of its orbit – collected between 2003 and 2020 into 10 seconds, making it the longest time-lapse of an exoplanet yet.
“We need another six years of data before we can see one whole orbit,” noted Jason Wang, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University, who led the work, in a statement. “We’re almost there. Patience is key.”
Beta Pictoris b, found in the constellation Pictor about 63 light-years from Earth, is a beast of a planet at 12 times the mass of Jupiter. Its star Beta Pictoris, which it orbits at about 10 times the Earth-Sun distance, is 1.75 times the size of the Sun. It’s also very young at a mere 20-26 million years old, and is about 8.7 times more luminous than our star, too.
“It’s extremely bright,” Wang said. “That’s why it’s one of the first exoplanets to ever be discovered and directly imaged. It’s so big that it’s at the boundary of a planet and a brown dwarf, which are more massive than planets.”
Wang actually conducted his first time-lapse of Beta Pictoric b showing five years of tracking it. To create the updated version, he was aided by high school student Malachi Noel, who was taking part in Northwestern’s REACH program to give students experience in astronomy research.
Noel analyzed data on the planet from the Gemini Observatory and the European Southern Observatory using an AI image-processing technique to process the data. Wang then used another AI technique called “motion interpolation” to fill in the gaps of the planet jumping around in the data to create a video that shows its continuous smooth orbit.
“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 said. “The algorithm smooths out that jitter, so we can imagine how the planet would look if we did see it every day.”
The black circle and star icon in the middle of the image is actually suppressing the glare we would see from Beta Pictoris, but even then the star’s light is so intense it outshines the planet when it gets too close. Those moments are marked with an X so we can still watch its path around its star.
As Wang notes, sometimes physics and equations can feel very abstract, and graphs are not always inspiring, but to see a movie with your own eyes of something happening out in space is visceral – and certainly worth 10 seconds of your time.