Caltech's ET Laboratory Looks For New Earths
Caltech's Exoplanet Technology Laboratory has been developing new strategies to search for habitable exoplanets. They scan for exoplanetary biosignatures, such as oxygen molecules and methane.
(High-dispersion coronagraphy (HDC) equipment at ET Lab)
Astronomers use an instrument known as an "coronagraph" to isolate the reflected starlight bouncing off a nearby exoplanet. Once the coronagraph zeros in on the faint light of an exoplanet, a low-resolution spectrometer then analyzes the chemical "fingerprints" of that world. Unfortunately, this technology is limited to only studying the largest exoplanets orbiting far from their stars.
The ET Lab's new technique uses a coronagraph, optical fibers and a high-resolution spectrometer, all working together to strip out a star's glare while capturing an extremely detailed chemical fingerprint of any worlds in orbit. This technique is known as "high-dispersion coronagraphy" (HDC), and it could revolutionize our understanding of the diversity of exoplanetary atmospheres.
"What makes the HDC method so powerful is that the spectral signature of the planet can be picked out, even when it's still buried in the glare of the star after the coronagraph," [Caltech astronomer Garreth Ruane] tells HowStuffWorks. "This allows for detection of molecules in the atmosphere of planets that are extremely difficult to image.
Golden Age science fiction great Edmond Hamilton wrote about this idea in his thrilling (really!) 1936 short story Cosmic Quest:
I was near enough it now to set my automatic astronomical instruments to searching it for a habitable planet.
These instruments were the wonderful ones our astronomers had perfected. With super-telescopic eyes each one scanned a part of the star field before them. And each mechanical eye, when it found planetary systems in its field, automatically shifted upon them a higher powered telespectroscope which recorded on permanent film the size, mean temperature and atmospheric conditions of these worlds.
(Read more about Hamilton's search for habitable planets)
(The telespectroscope recorded the conditions of these other worlds)
Via HowStuffWorksNow. Thanks to @ProfAbelMéndez for the tip on this article.
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