3 mins read 02 Aug 2021

New High Precision Exoplanet Search Tool Developed

An astronomer from Macquarie University has helped develop one of the most precise tools yet to search for exoplanets. 

The WIYN telescope building at sunset. Credit: NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Macquarie University’s Dr Christian Schwab has helped develop one of the most precise tools ever built for detecting planets outside of our Solar System. Dr Schwab led the optical design of the NEID spectrometer, which has just passed its final NASA operational review. 

NEID’s name comes from a Tohono O’odham (a native American peoples) word meaning ‘to see’. The spectrometer is now in full operation at the  WIYN ( University of Wisconsin–Madison (W), Indiana University (I), Yale University (Y), and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (N)) 3.5m telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, Arizona. 

NEID’s design has now become a blueprint for future instruments - and a small scale copy has recently been installed at Macquarie University's campus observatory. 

“We are proud that NEID is available to the worldwide astronomical community for exoplanet discovery and characterization,” said Jason Wright, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University and NEID project scientist.

“I can't wait to see the results we and our colleagues around the world will produce over the next few years, from discovering new, rocky planets, to measuring the compositions of exoplanetary atmospheres, to measuring the shapes and orientations of planetary orbits, to characterization of the physical processes of these planets' host stars."

The Search for Exoplanets

An image from NEID’s spectroscopic observations of the Sun. Credit: Dani Zemba, Guðmundur Stefánsson, and the NEID Team.

NEID will search for exoplanets by measuring the “wobble” of stars caused by orbiting planets. This gravitational tug of planets on their host stars is minute. Jupiter, for example, induces a 12 meter per second wobble on our Sun, but the Earth induces a wobble of only about 9 centimeters per second. 

NEID, which uses precision optics in a custom vacuum chamber to study the emission and absorption of light from stars, can measure tiny wobbles under 25 centimetres per second.

"We kept tweaking the optics to get the utmost precision, which is crucial to tease out the tiny signals of rocky planets orbiting stars in our solar neighborhood,” said Dr Schwab.

"Seeing a lot of hard work by a great team come together, seeing the spectrograph collect starlight, and produce some of the highest precision spectra we've ever recorded, is really exciting."

John Callas, project manager for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), commented on the importance of NEID. 

“NEID represents the state of the art in Doppler spectroscopy radial velocity detection and characterization of exoplanets,” he said. “NEID will push the existing boundaries for searching for smaller exoplanets, probing beyond the challenges that have limited past generations of RV spectrographs.”