HARPS-N instrument will help confirm Kepler's planet finds

Feb 15, 2011
The HARPS-N spectrograph will be installed on the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. Credit: INAF

(PhysOrg.com) -- The search for planets outside our solar system continues to heat up. NASA's Kepler spacecraft has located more than 1,200 planetary candidates, however confirming them remains a challenge. In some circumstances, an eclipsing binary star can mimic the shallow dimming due to a planet crossing in front of its star. Ground-based measurements are needed to verify an orbiting world by spotting the gravitational wobbles it induces in its host star, in a method known as radial velocity.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) continues to be a major player in the planet-hunting realm. CfA is part of an international collaboration building a new instrument called HARPS-North. (HARPS stands for High-Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher.) This precision spectrograph is designed to detect the tiny radial-velocity signal induced by planets as small as Earth, if they orbit close to their star. It will complement Kepler by helping to confirm and characterize Kepler's planetary candidates.

"The gives us the size of a planet, based on the amount of light it blocks when it passes in front of its star. Now we need to measure planetary masses, so that we can calculate the densities. That will allow us to distinguish and water worlds from ones dominated by atmospheres of hydrogen and helium," explained Smithsonian astronomer David Latham.

A spectrograph operates by splitting the light from a star into its component wavelengths or colors, much like a prism. absorb light of specific colors, leaving dark lines in the star's spectrum. Those lines shift position slightly due to the created by the of an orbiting planet on its star.

HARPS-N will essentially duplicate the successful design of an existing instrument in the Southern Hemisphere, the original HARPS. It will be augmented by technology now under development, such as a laser comb for wavelength calibration, which will allow it to detect subtle radial-velocity signals.

The original HARPS operates on the 3.6-meter European Southern Observatory telescope at La Silla, Chile. HARPS-N will be installed on the 3.6-meter Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands. From this location, it will be able to study the same region of the sky viewed by the Kepler spacecraft, within the northern constellations of Cygnus and Lyra.

"We have set up an enthusiastic collaboration among various institutions to build a northern copy of HARPS. We all expect HARPS-N to be as successful as its southern 'brother,'" said HARPS-N principal investigator Francesco Pepe of the Astronomical Observatory of Geneva.

"HARPS-N will pursue the most interesting targets found by Kepler, at a level that no one else in the world can do," said Dimitar Sasselov, Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. "HARPS-N will partner with Kepler to characterize worlds enough like Earth that they might be able to support life as we know it."

First light for HARPS-N is anticipated in April 2012.

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User comments : 5

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LariAnn
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2011
So . . . once we find one or more worlds like Earth, in the habitable zone, what then? How are we ever going to get there to see if any life is present? It'd be nice to know what the next step is, or if there is ever going to be a next step.
yyz
5 / 5 (5) Feb 15, 2011
LariAnn,

Once Earth-mass planets are identified in the habitable zones around sun-like stars, determing the composition of their atmospheres, as well as refining other parameters like surface temps, mass, orbital inclination etc., would seem a logical next step.

Careful scrutiny of a planet's atmosphere may reveal unambiguous signatures indicative of life (or not, we shall see).

Transiting or directly imaged planets are likely to be the first (due to favorable geometry) to have their atmospheres studied in detail. The study of exoplanet atmospheres is in its infancy.

It has also been suggested that the study of exoplanet atmospheres might reveal the presence of intelligent life through the detection substances not found naturally (freon was given as an example).

There are of course many other studies that will be undertaken to study planets of all kinds. I have just mentioned a few here.

ibuyufo
5 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2011
We'll just hop on the intergalactic bus and go there of course!
omatumr
1 / 5 (3) Feb 15, 2011
The discovery of other Earth-like planets will help us understand the events that produced the solar system:

youtube.com/watch?v=AQZe_Qk-q7M

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel
Sanescience
3 / 5 (1) Feb 16, 2011
yyz gives a good start. Direct imaging of exoplanets in detail is going to take some doing, however it might be closer than many think.

Ideas for interferometry additive and subtractive telescopes with the simulated size of the lunar - earth Lagrange points distance might be sooner than later.