Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tech Scientists Begin Project To Detect Makeup Of Distant Planets

By John Larson
SOCORRO – A team of scientists at New Mexico Tech is beginning a project to detect atmospheric makeup on planets outside the solar system, ranging in distance from 10 to 100 light-years out in space.
The research program titled New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument, or NESSI, has received $732,016. Michelle Creech-Eakman, associate professor of physics at Tech, is the lead scientist for the program.
“This is an instrument that goes on the back of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s 2.4-meter telescope,” Creech-Eakman said. “It works with a different part of the spectrum and has to do with the colors that can determine the molecules in the atmosphere of exoplanets.”
She said the instrument is designed to look at planets’ atmospheres only when the planet is transiting in front of the star it’s orbiting.
“Numbers of known exo-planets are increasing, but it’s only the transiting planets we can look at. Some have only a two-hour transit, but we see 60 of them out there in any given month, so there is always one to study,” Creech-Eakman said.
Creech-Eakman said several different surveys are looking at transiting planets.
“It’s a really hot topic in astrophysics right now. The team I’m working with is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I used to work,” she said. “They are one of the top teams in looking at exo-planets right now. The actual funding for the NESSI is coming from Dr. (Van) Romero’s office.”
Another member of the research team is Tech astrobiologist Penny Boston, who has been most recently leading a project looking into the possibility of finding microscopic life in lava tubes on Mars.
Boston said the whole idea for the project grew out of an astrobiology class taught by Boston, Creech-Eakman and biology department chairman Tom Kieft.
“The last time we taught this class, JPL’s Mark Swain was involved, and he was talking about the exoplanet stuff they were starting to do. Looking at planets orbiting other stars,” Boston said.
“He knew that the MRO and its 2.4-meter telescope were looking for projects and users. The talk got around to this cutting-edge astronomy using ground-based telescopes as opposed to the Hubbell and Spitzer space telescopes.”
“My part is to put together the tiger team – a team that looks to incoming data with fast response – to interpret the kinds of environments you would find on these fast moving objects,” Boston said. “The spectrometer will show which chemical compounds are in the atmosphere, which should give an indication of the makeup of the planet’s environment.”
The Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument is being built by Magdalena Ridge Observatory scientist Colby Jurgenson, who is an integral part of the team.
“A spectrometer is not unique, but this one’s purpose is to study the exoplanet’s atmosphere,” Creech-Eakman said. “It will take measurements to pick out photons from the planet.”
Jurgenson is expected to complete the specialized exoplanet spectroscopic survey instrument within the next 18 months.
She said the project is drawing on experts from around the world, like SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) founder Frank Drake, who spearheaded the establishment of the world’s largest radio telescope at Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Other researchers include David Westpfahl, Tech physics professor and department head; Pin Chen of the California Institute of Technology; and Gautam Vasisht and Pieter Deroo, from the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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