Researchers produce vital component in search for earth-like planets

January 20, 2017 by Elin Bäckström
Researchers produce vital component in search for earth-like planets
The VLT – Very Large Telescope – and the Alpha Centauri star system. Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

Researchers at Uppsala University plan to manufacture a new type of coronagraph for the VLT, the Very Large Telescope in Chile. The coronagraph is a key component of the telescope which will be used to search for planets in the neighbouring star system Alpha Centauri.

The Uppsala researchers' participation is a result of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) signing a deal with Breakthrough Initiatives for adapting the instrument of the VLT.

"Being part of the search for a potentially habitable earth-like planet is very exciting," says Mikael Karlsson, Reader at Uppsala University's unit for Applied Materials Science and in charge of the coronagraph that Uppsala University is developing together with the Université de Liège in Belgium.

Uppsala University has already manufactured similar diamond coronagraphs and installed them in three of the world's largest telescopes: the Keck Observatory on Hawaii, the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona and also the VLT in Chile. The new version of diamond coronagraph that is planned for the VLT's VISIR instrument will reach a new level of performance.

The coronagraph is a key component of the telescope. It is a one centimetre large transparent synthetic diamond disc with a deeply cut diffraction grating with a precision of less than a thousandth of a millimetre. Coronagraphs are used to reduce the blinding light of a star in order to reveal the weak light from any planets that surround them.

Researchers produce vital component in search for earth-like planets
Photograph of a one centimetre large diamond coronagraph. Credit: Uppsala University

The technological development of diamond coronagraphs is done within an ERC project. The ERC contributes EUR 1.5 million to the Université de Liège and Uppsala University for this purpose.

The diamond coronagraphs are developed to reveal extrasolar planets. Observing the light from extrasolar is a very complicated task that can be compared to detecting the light of a firefly buzzing around a lighthouse – from 200 kilometres away.

Mikael Karlsson leads the work at Uppsala University in designing and manufacturing diamond coronagraphs for infrared , while Ernesto Vargas Catalan, PhD student, handles the manufacturing of these highly advanced optical diamond components.

The coronagraph is based on micro-optics and consists of a diffraction grid, a pattern of parallel scores with typical dimensions of around 1 µm (micrometre) or less. The development of a manufacturing technique that could produce these diamond micro-structures was started nine years ago, and the first diamond coronagraph was produced five years ago. The manufacturing technique is still being improved, in order to produce even better diamond coronagraphs. By installing these coronagraphs in future extremely large telescopes and space telescopes, astrophysicists hope to discover and describe potentially habitable .

Explore further: VLT to search for planets in Alpha Centauri system

Related Stories

VLT to search for planets in Alpha Centauri system

January 9, 2017

ESO has signed an agreement with the Breakthrough Initiatives to adapt the Very Large Telescope instrumentation in Chile to conduct a search for planets in the nearby star system Alpha Centauri. Such planets could be the ...

On the road to finding other Earths

April 29, 2016

Scientists are getting closer to finding worlds that resemble our own "blue marble" of a planet. NASA's Kepler mission alone has confirmed more than 1,000 planets outside our solar system—a handful of which are a bit bigger ...

Imaging giant exoplanets around nearby stars

November 15, 2016

The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is the highest-ranked recommendation for a large space mission in the NRC 2010 decadal survey, New Worlds, New Horizons (NWNH) in Astronomy and Astrophysics. The WFIRST coronagraph ...

Hiding in the sunshine: the search for other Earths

April 29, 2016

We humans might not be the only ones to ponder our place in the universe. If intelligent aliens do roam the cosmos, they too might ask a question that has gripped humans for centuries: Are we alone? These aliens might even ...

How to read a STEREO image

October 26, 2016

In the same way that two eyes give humans a three-dimensional perception of the world around us, the twin spacecraft of NASA's Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory mission, or STEREO, enable us to understand the sun in ...

Recommended for you

First global simulation yields new insights into ring system

April 27, 2017

A team of researchers in Japan modeled the two rings around Chariklo, the smallest body in the Solar System known to have rings (Figure 1). This is the first time an entire ring system has been simulated using realistic sizes ...

Sun's eruptions might all have same trigger

April 26, 2017

Large and small scale solar eruptions might all be triggered by a single process, according to new research that leads to better understanding of the Sun's activity.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.