Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have come up with an inexpensive telescope attachment that allows for unprecedented precision in observing exoplanets by ground-based telescopes.
According to Science Daily, the Penn State astronomers teamed up with researchers from Rochester, New York-based RPC Photonics to create “beam-shaping” diffusers. These are micro-optic devices that spread incoming light across an image and reduce the distortion created by the Earth’s atmosphere that could compromise the precision of exoplanet observations from ground-based telescopes.
“This inexpensive technology delivers high photometric precision in observations of exoplanets as they transit — cross in front of — the bright stars that they orbit,” explained lead author Gudmundur Stefansson, a graduate student at Penn State.
“This technology is especially relevant considering the impending launch of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) early in 2018. It is up to ground-based facilities to rapidly and reliably follow-up on candidate planets that are identified by TESS.”
Stefansson’s fellow study author, Suvrath Mahadevan, explained that the beam-shaped diffusers are telescope attachments created by means of a delicate, “precise” nanofabrication process. Surface patterns are written in either one of two methods — by writing them precisely on a plastic polymer on a glass surface, or by directly drawing them on the glass. The patterns are made up of micro-scale structures that are designed to transform the varying light input from stars into a more stable, predefined form spread over the pixels of a telescope camera.
As explained by the International Business Times, it is possible to use focused ground telescopes for viewing exoplanets as they cross the path of their host stars, but images taken by these instruments tend to be of varying size and intensity. It is also possible to intentionally defocus in an attempt to spread the light out more evenly, but that doesn’t eliminate the fluctuations in size and intensity. But with the help of the new telescope attachment, images are much clearer and precise.