Light reflected from planets is polarized. This basic property of planets provides the possibility for detecting and characterizing extra-solar planets using polarimetry. The expected polarization properties of extra-solar planets are discussed that can be inferred from polarimetry of “our” solar system planets. They show a large variety of characteristics depending on the atmospheric and/or surface properties. Best candidates for a polarimetric detection are extra-solar planets with an optically thick Rayleigh scattering layer.
Even the detection of highly polarized extra-solar planets requires a very sophisticated instrument. We present the results from a phase A (feasibility) study for a polarimetric arm in the ESO VLT planet finder instrument. It is shown that giant planets around nearby stars can be searched and investigated with an imaging polarimeter, combined with a powerful AO system and a coronagraph at an 8 m class telescope.
A similar type of polarimeter is also considered for the direct detection of terrestrial planets using an AO system on one of the future Extremely Large Telescopes.