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NASA selects team to build next-generation planet-finding instrument

The NEID instrument, to be completed in 2019, will be installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and detect exoplanets by measuring the miniscule “wobbling” of stars.

The NEID instrument, set to be completed in 2019, will be installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona; it will detect exoplanets by measuring the minuscule “wobbling” of stars. Photo Credit: Mark Hanna/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Planet-hunting space telescopes may soon get a helping hand from Earth as NASA advances work on a next-generation instrument designed to search for alien worlds. On Tuesday, March 29, the agency announced the selection of a research team that will build a $10 million cutting-edge tool, named NEID.

NEID is short for NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy. The instrument is part of a new partnership between NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was established in February 2015, called the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program (NN-EXPLORE).

According to a statement issued by the program, the spectrometer is expected to be completed in 2019. It will then be installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope, operated by the University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), and the University of Missouri, and located at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

NASA revealed that the research team will be led by Dr. Suvrath Mahadevan, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU). Scientists from PSU as well as from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Colorado, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Macquarie University in Australia, the Australian Astronomical Observatory, and the Physical Research Laboratory in India will be contributing to this effort.

“We are privileged to have been selected to build this new instrument for the exoplanet community. This is a testament to our multi-institutional and interdisciplinary team of talented graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and senior scientists,” Mahadevan said.

Very high velocity precision is needed to measure the mass of low mass planets through the subtle motion, the “wobble”, that a planet induces in its host star. NEID, also known as the Extreme Precision Doppler Spectrometer (EPDS) destined for Kitt Peak will measure stellar motions with a precision of 0.1 - 0.5 m/s (or 0.2 - 1 mph), velocities comparable to the running speed of a desert tortoise or gila monster. With such high precision, the spectrometer will be able to detect and characterize Jupiter- and Neptune-sized gas giant planets as well as super-Earth and Earth-sized rocky planets.

Very high-velocity precision is needed to measure the mass of low mass planets through the subtle motion, the “wobble”, that a planet induces in its host star. NEID, also known as the Extreme Precision Doppler Spectrometer (EPDS), destined for Kitt Peak, will measure stellar motions with a precision of 0.1 – 0.5 m/s (or 0.2 – 1 mph), velocities comparable to the running speed of a desert tortoise or Gila monster. With such high precision, the spectrometer will be able to detect and characterize Jupiter- and Neptune-sized gas giant planets as well as super-Earth and Earth-sized rocky planets. Image Credit: NOAO

NEID will search for exoplanets by measuring the “wobble” of stars, caused by the gravitational tug of a planet in orbit around it.

It will, essentially, be a giant spectrograph that will take stellar light and measure its various components.

The tool has been described by the space agency as a world-class precision radial velocity instrument, with a minimum velocity precision of better than 0.5 m/s (1 mph) and a goal of 0.1 m/s (0.2 mph). Such extreme precision is needed to measure the mass of an orbiting planet through the slight motion that the planet induces on the star. Lower-mass planets induce subtle motions in the star, thus higher velocity precision is required to characterize them. For example, Jupiter causes a 13 m/s (29 mph) amplitude wobble in the Sun, whereas the Earth induces a much smaller wobble (about 0.1 m/s).

Thanks to this instrument, astronomers should be able to search out and study new planets and planetary systems, as well as follow-up discoveries of NASA’s Kepler and K2 missions and the future Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). It will also help identify promising planetary candidates for future observations with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) – which are currently under development.

“The NEID instrument is a critical part of NASA’s partnership with NSF; this state-of-art precision instrument will enable the community to search for new worlds using the WIYN Telescope. We look forward to many new discoveries that can then be further explored using NASA’s space telescopes,” said Paul Hertz, NASA Astrophysics Division Director in Headquarters, Washington.

Astronomers will look for features in the data that correspond to absorption by chemical elements present in the star’s photosphere; measuring the movement of these features should tell researchers about the magnitude of the star’s wobble, which is related to the mass of the planet revolving around that star.

“The goal of this project is to build an instrument capable of detecting a planet like Earth orbiting a star like the Sun,” said team member Cullen Blake, an assistant professor in PSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Blake will contribute to designing NEID’s technologically sophisticated, highly precise digital camera to record the starlight. The data collected by this camera will include stellar chemical signatures that will be analyzed to detect the “wobbles” caused by planetary companions.

“These are very challenging measurements. There are some really exciting new technologies that weren’t available even a few years ago that will help us understand what is a shift in data due to the star and what could be artifacts,” Blake added.

The NEID project will be managed on behalf of NASA’s Astrophysics Division by the Exoplanet Exploration Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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