An imaging nulling interferometer to study extrasolar planets

J. R.P. Angel, N. J. Woolf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

180 Scopus citations


Interferometric techniques offer two advantages for the detection and analysis of thermal radiation from planets: destructive interference to strongly suppress the stellar emission, and the possibility of high-resolution imaging to resolve planets and distinguish them from dust emission. This paper presents a new interferometric configuration in which the conflicting requirements for these goals are reconciled. It realizes a very strong, broad interference null, so high-resolution fringes can be used while maintaining good suppression of the stellar disk. Complex phase measurement is precluded by the need for destructive interference, but we find that a cross-correlation technique analogous to aperture synthesis can recover true images. When operated 5 AU from the Sun to escape background emission from local zodiacal dust, the interferometer's sensitivity will be limited fundamentally by noise in the photon flux from warm zodiacal dust in the planetary system under observation. In order to scale the interferometer for adequate sensitivity, the 10 μm emission from such dust could be determined early on by a ground-based interferometer. If stars at 10 pc distance have zodiacal clouds like our own, a 50 m long space interferometer with four 1 m elements should see individual planets like the Earth in images taken over 10 hours. Simultaneous infrared spectra of planets like Earth, Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn could be obtained during a 3 month integration, with the sensitivity to detect carbon dioxide, water, and ozone at the levels seen in Earth's spectrum.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)373-379
Number of pages7
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 PART I
StatePublished - 1997


  • Instrumentation: interferometers
  • Planetary systems
  • Space vehicles techniques: image processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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