Architecture design study and technology road map for the Planet Formation Imager (PFI)

John D. Monnier*, Michael J. Ireland, Stefan Kraus, Fabien Baron, Michelle Creech-Eakman, Ruobing Dong, Andrea Isella, Antoine Merand, Ernest Michael, Stefano Minardi, David Mozurkewich, Romain Petrov, Stephen Rinehart, Theo ten Brummelaar, Gautam Vasisht, Ed Wishnow, John Young, Zhaohuan Zhu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference proceeding contributionpeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


The Planet Formation Imager (PFI) Project has formed a Technical Working Group (TWG) to explore possible facility architectures to meet the primary PFI science goal of imaging planet formation in situ in nearby starforming regions. The goals of being sensitive to dust emission on solar system scales and resolving the Hill-sphere around forming giant planets can best be accomplished through sub-milliarcsecond imaging in the thermal infrared. Exploiting the 8-13 micron atmospheric window, a ground-based long-baseline interferometer with approximately 20 apertures including 10km baselines will have the necessary resolution to image structure down 0.1 milliarcseconds (0.014 AU) for T Tauri disks in Taurus. Even with large telescopes, this array will not have the sensitivity to directly track fringes in the mid-infrared for our prime targets and a fringe tracking system will be necessary in the near-infrared. While a heterodyne architecture using modern mid-IR laser comb technology remains a competitive option (especially for the intriguing 24 and 40μm atmospheric windows), the prioritization of 3-5μm observations of CO/H2O vibrotational levels by the PFI-Science Working Group (SWG) pushes the TWG to require vacuum pipe beam transport with potentially cooled optics. We present here a preliminary study of simulated L- and N-band PFI observations of a realistic 4-planet disk simulation, finding 21×2.5m PFI can easily detect the accreting protoplanets in both L and N-band but can see non-Accreting planets only in L band. We also find that even an ambitious PFI will lack sufficient surface brightness sensitivity to image details of the fainter emission from dust structures beyond ~5 AU, unless directly illuminated or heated by local energy sources. That said, the utility of PFI at N-band is highly dependent on the stage of planet formation in the disk and we require additional systematic studies in conjunction with the PFI-SWG to better understand the science capabilities of PFI, including the potential to resolve protoplanetary disks in emission lines to measure planet masses using position-velocity diagrams. We advocate for a specific technology road map in order to reduce the current cost driver (telescopes) and to validate high accuracy fringe tracking and high dynamic range imaging at L, M band. In conclusion, no technology show-stoppers have been identified for PFI to date, however there is high potential for breakthroughs in medium-aperture (4-m class) telescopes architecture that could reduce the cost of PFI by a factor of 2 or more.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOptical and Infrared Interferometry and Imaging V
EditorsFabien Malbet, Michelle J. Creech-Eakman, Peter G. Tuthill
Place of PublicationWashington, United States
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781510601949
ISBN (Print)9781510601932
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes
EventOptical and Infrared Interferometry and Imaging V - Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 27 Jun 20161 Jul 2016

Publication series

NameProceedings of SPIE
ISSN (Print)0277-786X


OtherOptical and Infrared Interferometry and Imaging V
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • interferometry
  • mid-infrared
  • exoplanets
  • planet formation
  • astronomy
  • facilities
  • imaging
  • infrared


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