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DTU and NASA to look for new planets from the Canary Islands

DTU and NASA to look for new planets from the Canary Islands

Experts from DTU Space have been working in the Canary Islands this summer. They have upgraded the Nordic telescope on the island of La Palma, and it is now tuned to look for exoplanets.

By Morten Garly Andersen

Experts from DTU Space have spent the summer upgrading NOT (Nordic Optical Telescope), an Earth-based telescope located 2,400 metres above sea level on La Palma in the Canary Islands. Thanks to the upgrade, the 30-year-old telescope will now be even better at identifying exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars than the Sun.

A spectrograph on NOT has been improved to increase the precision of the equipment. This means that NASA and MIT have now bought observation time on the telescope on La Palma in collaboration with the exoplanet group at DTU Space. In addition, data from NOT will complement NASA’s data from the TESS space mission, which is also looking for exoplanets.

“It would cost around DKK 30-40 million to build a new spectrograph, whereas our improvements only cost DKK 2 million. So, it’s definitely a cost-effective way to update the telescope,” says Lars A. Buchhave, Professor at DTU Space, who is behind the implementation of the project, which has been funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

“And the fact that NASA and MIT have agreed to buy observation time on the telescope—which is a bit of a rarity—is a great recognition of the quality of this improvement work.”

Collects light from stars with fibre-optic cable

Roughly speaking, the telescope collects light from distant stars and sends it into a spectrograph via a fibre-optic cable. The spectrograph includes a so-called grating—a glass structure that diffracts the light. Inside the spectrograph, the light is split into different wavelength areas. Researchers will then analyse these areas and look for signatures from exoplanets.

The different wavelengths of light emitted from distant stars contain information about the exoplanet that may orbit a particular star. By analysing the light, you can obtain knowledge about, for example, the exoplanet’s mass and atmosphere.

TESS is used to identify exoplanets from space and determine their size. The mass of the exoplanets is determined using follow-up data from a number of Earth-based telescopes, including, of course, NOT. Based on this knowledge about mass and radius, it is possible to calculate the planet’s average density, and thus get an initial idea of what the planet is composed of.

It is also possible to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere and, among other things, gain insight into its chemical composition and thus compare it with other planets.

Three important elements improved

A small team of technicians and researchers from DTU Space have been in the Canary Islands to carry out the upgrade: major improvements of FIES, the NOT telescope’s spectograph.

The upgrade of FIES includes three main areas: its grating has been installed in a new pressure chamber, and it has been fitted with new optical fibres and a new calibration source.

One of the significant improvements has been to make the spectograph’s grating less sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure, which disturbs the measurements.

Experts from DTU Space have spent the summer upgrading NOT (Nordic Optical Telescope), an Earth-based telescope located 2,400 metres above sea level on La Palma in the Canary Islands. Thanks to the upgrade, the 30-year-old telescope will now be even better at identifying exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars than the Sun.

A spectrograph on NOT has been improved to increase the precision of the equipment. This means that NASA and MIT have now bought observation time on the telescope on La Palma in collaboration with the exoplanet group at DTU Space. In addition, data from NOT will complement NASA’s data from the TESS space mission, which is also looking for exoplanets.

“It would cost around DKK 30-40 million to build a new spectrograph, whereas our improvements only cost DKK 2 million. So, it’s definitely a cost-effective way to update the telescope,” says Lars A. Buchhave, Professor at DTU Space, who is behind the implementation of the project, which has been funded by the Carlsberg Foundation.

“And the fact that NASA and MIT have agreed to buy observation time on the telescope—which is a bit of a rarity—is a great recognition of the quality of this improvement work.”

Collects light from stars with fibre-optic cable

Roughly speaking, the telescope collects light from distant stars and sends it into a spectrograph via a fibre-optic cable. The spectrograph includes a so-called grating—a glass structure that diffracts the light. Inside the spectrograph, the light is split into different wavelength areas. Researchers will then analyse these areas and look for signatures from exoplanets.

The different wavelengths of light emitted from distant stars contain information about the exoplanet that may orbit a particular star. By analysing the light, you can obtain knowledge about, for example, the exoplanet’s mass and atmosphere.

TESS is used to identify exoplanets from space and determine their size. The mass of the exoplanets is determined using follow-up data from a number of Earth-based telescopes, including, of course, NOT. Based on this knowledge about mass and radius, it is possible to calculate the planet’s average density, and thus get an initial idea of what the planet is composed of.

It is also possible to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere and, among other things, gain insight into its chemical composition and thus compare it with other planets.

Three important elements improved

A small team of technicians and researchers from DTU Space have been in the Canary Islands to carry out the upgrade: major improvements of FIES, the NOT telescope’s spectograph.

The upgrade of FIES includes three main areas: its grating has been installed in a new pressure chamber, and it has been fitted with new optical fibres and a new calibration source.

One of the significant improvements has been to make the spectograph’s grating less sensitive to changes in atmospheric pressure, which disturbs the measurements.

The installation itself was a challenging task. The removal and relocation of the grating to the new metal box was one of the most critical moments of the upgrade. The task required great caution and a special tool (pictured), as the grating/glass structure was not to be touched during the installation.
Fotos: Joonas Viuho/NOT)

source: Technical University of Denmark

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