This Planet-Hunting Telescope Revolutionizes the Search for Alien Life

Wednesday, 06 December 2017 - 10:23AM
Astronomy
Space
Wednesday, 06 December 2017 - 10:23AM
This Planet-Hunting Telescope Revolutionizes the Search for Alien Life
Image credit: ESO
Four-hundred years ago, a telescope was relatively simple: grind a couple lenses, stick 'em in a tube, point and look.

Now we have the Very Large Telescope, which is actually four telescopes each using a mirror about four times the height of a person.

With their powers combined, these telescopes can combine into one incredibly high-resolution telescope and spot things other systems can't.

And now, with the addition of the new ESPRESSO instrument, they can start picking up the signatures of previously invisible Earth-like exoplanets.



ESPRESSO stands for "Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations," and looks like this. It's essentially an upgrade for the VLT, and is one of the most sensitive and advanced tools brought to the hunt for other Earths.

The business of finding Earth-sized planets is an incredibly sensitive one—instead of trying to spot planets directly, astronomers have to use two techniques called radial velocity detection and transit detection.

The first technique involves the play between a star and an orbiting planet: as the planet moves around the star, its gravitational force pulls on its much larger neighbor, which slows the star's velocity.

These changes in velocity can be detected and used to figure out how massive the orbiting planet is.

The catch is that these changes are very, very small—in Earth's case, the change in our star's velocity is only about 9 centimeters per second.

Previous instruments could only judge velocity changes in meters per second, but the new ESPRESSO can measure changes of about 10 centimeters per second and slower.

This means that smaller, more Earth-sized planets can be found much more easily, especially around smaller stars.

And we're finding more and more Earth-like exoplanets every day now thanks to these kinds of technological innovations.

NASA announced the discovery of 1,284 new exoplanets (and nine that might support life) this past summer, and just yesterday researchers announced the discovery two Super-Earths right next to one another.

With ESPRESSO, we're betting that number's going to jump up a lot next year.
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This Planet-Hunting Telescope Revolutionizes the Search for Alien Life
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