Astronomers are set to get a powerful boost to their capabilities of detecting exoplanets and in determining whether or not said worlds circling faraway stars are Earth-like — and they'll be provided that boost with a powerful new detection device, a black box known as ESPRESSO.
Phys.org has reported that ESPRESSO, a spectrograph whose name is an acronym for Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, is set to go online in the coming months as part of the telescope array known as the Very Large Telescope, or VLT, a set of four massive telescopes located in the Atacama desert of northern Chile. The device, an unassuming black box, is reportedly 10 times stronger than the most powerful spectrograph currently in existence. Altogether, the telescopes and ESPRESSO, run by the European Southern Observatory, will be engaged in the exploration of space, seeking out exoplanets that most resemble Earth.
The more advanced spectrograph was built to analyze the starlight observed by the VLT, determining whether or not exoplanets revolve around those stellar objects. ESPRESSO will also gather information that will help determine the consistency of the exoplanets' atmospheres and whether or not they would be conducive — with the presence of elements like oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide — to supporting life as we know it. The black box will also aid in the detection of water.
ESPRESSO will also break new ground.
"Espresso will be available on all four telescopes at once, which is something that had never been done before," said Italian astronomer Gaspare Lo Curto.
"That means the likelihood of finding planets similar to Earth in mass and size, or the conditions for life, are greater."ESPRESSO will supersede HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), the most powerful spectrograph now being used. The new model's detection precision will enable it to measure exoplanets far smaller than those that could be observed by HARPS, making it far more likely to detect worlds more favorable to harboring alien life.
The new device is currently hooked up and in the testing phase, housed within a large metal cylinder and stored underground at an average temperature of -150 C (-238 F). It will remain there for the next 10 years, closed off and inaccessible, quietly performing its job.
ESPRESSO's work will begin in 10 months. In its search for the possibility of planetary habitability and the potential for alien life, enhanced by its ability to expand the range for detecting exoplanets that are smaller and previously undetectable by HARPS, recent research out of the University of Washington suggests that looking for atmospheres with similar oxygen content to Earth's might be to restrictive. The study suggested looking for the combination of methane and carbon dioxide — without a lot of carbon monoxide — as well. Broadening the search parameters, researchers said (per Space.com), would lend itself to possibly detecting life-harboring exoplanets that are presently oxygen-poor, which was also the state of Earth's atmosphere for the first half of its existence.