SPIRou: New tool may unveil inhabitable worlds

Nov 04, 2013

Funding for SPIRou, a spectropolarimeter and a high-precision velocimeter optimized for both the detection of habitable Earth twins orbiting around nearby red dwarf stars and the study of the formation of Sun-like stars and their planets, was confirmed today by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) observatory.

University of Montreal and France's Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble lead the international consortium that manages the SPIRou project. "SPIRou is a spectropolarimeter – it decomposes light from stars into elementary colors and vibration modes. It is also a high-precision velocimeter, capable of recording the tiny motions of a star that probe the presence of an orbiting planet," explained SPIRou premier investigator René Doyon, a University of Montreal professor and director of the Mont-Mégantic Observatory. "It's like a radar speed gun, but rather than detecting excess or unusual velocity of an observed star, it finds the regular and periodic variations of its velocity." The construction of SPIRou will start in 2014, for installation in Toulouse, France, in 2016 and the first light to result from the new tool will be perceived at the CFH in 2017.

SPIRou will be able to hunt Earth-like planets orbiting in the habitable zones of nearby . The atmospheres of these Earth "twins" will then be scrutinized for the potential presence of water and other life-related molecules with instruments such as the James Webb Space Telescope that will be launched in 2018. "How do stars and planets come to life? How do magnetic fields impact their birth? Is our Earth one of the few planets in the Milky Way capable of hosting liquid water on its surface, or is it just one in a multitude? SPIRou, CFH Telescope's next-generation instrument, will investigate these astronomer-intriguing major questions over the coming decade," Doyon said. Doyon is in fact also the premier investigator of the FGS/NIRISS instrument that is being installed on the Webb telescope, an instrument dedicated to the search and the study of exoplanets and their atmosphere.

SPIRou: a major technical challenge.

To optimally observe celestial bodies as cool as red-dwarf stars (whose surface temperatures barely match that of standard halogen bulbs) SPIRou must work in the infrared, meaning that the heart of the instrument, the high-resolution spectrograph, must be installed within a cryogenic dewar and cooled down to the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-200°C). This is to prevent the ambient thermal radiation from outshining the dim light from the red dwarf stars that SPIRou collects and deciphers. Moreover, the temperature within the cryogenic dewar will have to be exceptionally stable, to within a few thousandth of a degree, to enable SPIRou to detect the nanometric motions of stellar spectra that will reveal the existence of habitable Earth-like . Université de Montréal researchers have met this challenge, having designed SPIRou's camera and infrared detector. Their colleagues at Université Laval contributed expertise in optical design.

SPIRou will be installed at the CFH Telescope, a sentinel of the starry skies atop the 4,200 m Maunea Kea extinct volcano on Hawaii's Big Island. Although the 3.6 m telescope boasts top-grade instrumentation and is located in one of the best astronomical sites in the world, competition is fierce and so the observatory has adopted an ambitious science policy in order to continuously innovate and remain in a leading position amongst the world's giant telescopes. SPIRou is one of the key instruments that should guarantee the future of the telescope over the next decade. In addition to the commitments that the CFHT has announced today, the SPIRou construction budget includes the support a large and international consortium of universities and research laboratories.

Explore further: Life may be harder to identify on some exoplanets

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Life may be harder to identify on some exoplanets

Oct 11, 2013

Finding life on exoplanets may be more difficult than people thought, said Feng Tian, a professor at the Center for Earth System Science at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The report was presented last week to the ...

Cloud behavior expands habitable zone of alien planets

Jul 01, 2013

A new study that calculates the influence of cloud behavior on climate doubles the number of potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarfs, the most common type of stars in the universe. This finding ...

Recommended for you

ESO image: A study in scarlet

9 hours ago

This new image from ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile reveals a cloud of hydrogen called Gum 41. In the middle of this little-known nebula, brilliant hot young stars are giving off energetic radiation that ...

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

Apr 15, 2014

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

Pushy neighbors force stellar twins to diverge

Apr 15, 2014

(Phys.org) —Much like an environment influences people, so too do cosmic communities affect even giant dazzling stars: Peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy's center from a high-flying observatory, Cornell ...

Image: Multiple protostars within IRAS 20324+4057

Apr 14, 2014

(Phys.org) —A bright blue tadpole appears to swim through the inky blackness of space. Known as IRAS 20324+4057 but dubbed "the Tadpole", this clump of gas and dust has given birth to a bright protostar, ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Meteorites yield clues to Martian early atmosphere

(Phys.org) —Geologists who analyzed 40 meteorites that fell to Earth from Mars unlocked secrets of the Martian atmosphere hidden in the chemical signatures of these ancient rocks. Their study, published ...

Let's put a sailboat on Titan

The large moons orbiting the gas giants in our solar system have been getting increasing attention in recent years. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is the only natural satellite known to house a thick atmosphere. ...

How kids' brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research from UC Davis is exploring ...

Gate for bacterial toxins found

Prof. Dr. Dr. Klaus Aktories and Dr. Panagiotis Papatheodorou from the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology of the University of Freiburg have discovered the receptor responsible ...