Espresso stands for Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations.
(Espresso telescope searches for exoplanets)
Espresso, an instrument known as a spectrograph, has a humble appearance that belies its cutting-edge technology: it is the most precise instrument of its kind ever built, 10 times stronger than its most powerful predecessor.
In the Atacama desert, in northern Chile, Espresso will be hooked up to four telescopes so big that scientists simply named them the Very Large Telescope, or VLT. Together, they will search the skies for exoplanets—those outside our own solar system—looking for ones that are similar to Earth.
It will analyze the light of the stars observed by the VLT, enabling it to determine whether planets orbit around them, and important information about those planets themselves: what their atmosphere is like, whether they have oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and whether there is water—all essential for supporting life.
"Espresso will be available on all four telescopes at once, which is something that had never been done before. That means the likelihood of finding planets similar to Earth in mass and size, or the conditions for life, are greater," said Italian astronomer Gaspare Lo Curto.
Golden Age science fiction author Edmond Hamilton described an automated solution eighty years ago in his exciting 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)