New Exoplanet Research Paper Shines Light On Tech Project

SOCORRO, N.M. Feb. 9, 2010 – The search for extraterrestrial life took a big leap this week … and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory will be among the leading telescopes searching the skies for friendly planets.

Extrasolar researchers at New Mexico Tech are thrilled with the publication of a paper in the current issue of Nature. Developments in astronomy methodology and instrumentation will lead to ground-breaking work at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. The project currently under way is the New Mexico Tech Extrasolar Spectroscopic Survey Instrument, or NESSI.

This NASA graphic shows a galactic perspective of the hunt for exoplanets.


Dr. Mark Swain of the Jet Propulsion Lab at Cal Tech is the lead scientist on a team that has developed new methods of interpreting exoplanet atmospheric and other data. Swain’s team has written new software that, in essence, filters out noise and provides a clearer image of the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres in other solar systems. His team is also partnered with Tech on the NESSI project.

Swain and his colleagues published their findings about extrasolar planets in the February 4, 2010, edition of Nature, a top-tier magazine. The article, which details their new methods of examining data, represents a significant advancement in the scientific community’s ability to “see” into other planets’ atmospheres.

“With any new approach, there’s skepticism,” said Dr. Penelope Boston, Earth science professor at New Mexico Tech and astrobiologist on the NESSI Team. “Especially when you’re looking for tiny signals against huge backgrounds. This article represents a proof of concept. We’re excited about the opportunity to generate high quality data on a dedicated instrument.”

New Mexico Tech and JPL received a NASA EPSCoR grant in August 2009 to build an infrared spectrometer specifically designed to study exoplanets. A team of Tech scientists and students are currently building the New Mexico Extrasolar Spectroscopic Survey Instrument. The instrument will be the first of its kind designed and built specifically for gathering data about exoplanets. 

Astrophysicists and astrobiologists (a marginal discipline until the mid 1990's) virtually get heart palpitations when discussing life on other planets.

“I spent more than half my life waiting for exoplanets to be confirmed,” Boston said. “And I’ve spent the past 15 years keeping track of them. I have spent my entire life thinking about life in the galaxy.”

Until now, astronomers largely believed that only space-based telescopes could gather data useful to detect the chemical compositions of distant atmospheres. Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman is a physics professor, project scientist of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer and the lead investigator on the NESSI project. She said the recent publication shows that ground-based infrared telescopes can be used to study the atmospheres of distant planets – if spectrometers are calibrated properly and given new computer programs.

An artist's rendering of a planet in another solar system. Courtesy of NASA

“We’re very excited because this is proof that we can do this,” Creech-Eakman said. “More than a year ago, we were certain we could do this from the ground, but claiming you can do it and proving it are two different things.”

The holy grail in the study of exoplanets is the search for an atmosphere with a chemical disequilibrium – which would be an important potential indicator of life. Boston said the main breakthrough is being able to study exoplanet atmospheres from earth, as opposed to space-based telescopes because of greater access and opportunity to concentrate on exoplanets the most likely to have interesting atmospheres.

“NASA took a chance on us that we could do this,” Creech-Eakman said. “The exoplanet field of study is moving quickly. We are studying them more and more every year – pending eventual missions to explore them. The field sparks the interest of the general public. What do these worlds look like? Could these exoplanets have the sort of atmosphere that could foster or indicate life?”

By examining the atmospheric chemistry of distant planets, scientists can infer whether a biosphere is conducive to the existence of life.

“One question we have burning within us is, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’,” Boston said. “Up until now, we’ve been restricted to our own solar system in trying to directly make observations of life processes.”

New computing techniques and new instrumentation at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory represent the beginning of what Boston calls “this new dawning age of characterizing exoplanets.”

“Atmospheres are a major signature of what’s going on with a planet,” Boston said. “We have a playbook from studying planets in our own solar system. When we look at other solar systems, we find variables that aren’t represented here. Temperature and chemical composition can let us figure out if a planet could host the life as we know it.”

As early as the 19th century, astronomers inferred the existence of exoplanets, but the first confirmed exoplanet was discovered in 1988. As of February 5, 2010, 429 exoplanets are known to exist. The field of exoplanet study is advancing rapidly. Astronomers discovered 85 exoplanets in 2009 alone and have already confirmed the existence of 14 more in 2010.

A purpose-built infrared spectrometer currently in the design phase will allow the 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory to gather atmospheric and thermal data about these newfound planets.

Dr. Colby Jurgenson is a lead engineer designing the instrument. He said working with world-renowned scientists at the Jet Propulsion Lab is an important milestone for New Mexico Tech and an exciting opportunity for him.

“That’s one of the most appealing aspects of this project,” he said. “This is high-level science. One big challenge for us is that we’re trying to be at the forefront of this field. We have a really tight schedule. We’re pushing to get it up and running quickly so New Mexico Tech and JPL can be the first to do this.”

The design team at Tech also includes Dr. Kamel Houairi, a post-doctoral researcher from France, graduate students John Russell and Luke Schmidt and undergraduates Charlie Moore and Dan Rodeheffer.

The New Mexico Tech team will present their work at the initial design review Friday, Feb. 12, at JPL in California. Creech-Eakman said the team will begin building the instrument after the final design is approved. She hopes the spectrometer will be in use by the end of 2010.

The Spectroscopic Survey will examine exoplanets in our galaxy, mostly within 100 light years of our Solar System.

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By By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech