MRO able to examine alien atmospheres

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New Mexico Tech and the Magdalena Ridge Observatory have been getting national attention, especially in the scientific community, with the development of an instrument that may help astronomers find an earth-like planet outside our solar system.

The New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI) was developed over a five-year period by computer science and physics students who collaborated with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Calif.

“The aim of the project is to get information about the atmosphere of planets outside the Solar System,” said Eileen Ryan, director of the 2.4-meter telescope at the MRO.

She posed the question of what we may find in regards to similarities and differences from planets found in our own solar system; she said currently, planets being found more closely resemble the heat of planet such as Jupiter.

“I always have my fingers crossed that somewhere, we’ll find a planet a lot like ours,” Ryan said. “The bigger ones that are easier to see are the ones getting found first.”

The 500-pound instrument was assembled at the MRO optics lab, located on the Tech campus; it was installed and tested three weeks ago at the observatory on South Baldy Mountain.

Principle scientist for the project and MRO physics professor, Michelle Creech-Eakman, said “first light” is always a big moment for any new instrument.

“The team is very excited about getting light through the system, and the performance is great,” Creech-Eakman.

During the first night’s observations, the team used Pollux, a star 33 light years away, as a sample to see if the system was working as designed. NESSI also collected light from several other planets, galaxies and star clusters.

“There has been lots of excitement and interest about NESSI from groups of scientists interested in measuring exoplanet atmospheres,” Creech-Eakman said.

This interest has placed this area of study as a top priority for the project’s goals.

“Others will undoubtedly want to try other science, so how much gets done with NESSI will depend on getting time on the 2.4-meter telescope,” she said.

Another commissioning run is scheduled for the first week of June.

“Speculation could go as far as getting an idea if these far-away planets could sustain life as we know it on Earth,” Ryan said.