A group of Penn State graduate students and professors have set their sights on producing a radial velocity spectrograph to be attached to the WIYN telescope.
With construction of this instrument — officially known as NEID — complete, the team is now preparing for the telescope’s intake of data with the hope of discovering Earth-like exoplanets.
This search for Earth-like exoplanets — planets not in our solar system — was first proposed in a letter sent to NASA in 2010 by a group of astronomers attending the Penn State workshop “Astronomy of Exoplanets with Precise Radial Velocities.”
It was not until 2014, however, that NASA accepted and announced the mission, adding it was seeking research groups to help produce the necessary tools for the project.
Out of a handful of other applicants, Penn State’s group was chosen to construct the main instrument for the telescope, this being the radial velocity spectrograph, with a $10 million contract.
According to Project Scientist Jason Wright , the role of the spectrograph is to stably collect the light being received by the telescope so that it can be carefully observed.
“This is a spectrograph, so what that means is that a big telescope in Arizona will collect the light and it’s going to bring the light to a focus,” Wright, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics, said. “We are building the main instrument that will take that light and dispense it into its component wavelengths so that we can study the light very carefully.”
In addition to Penn State’s efforts, the National Science Foundation’s Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research lab has run the Kitt Peak National Observatory, helping to operate the telescope’s hardware and software.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has also been heavily involved with designing the interface between the spectrograph and the telescope, according to Wright.
The NEID team also has a member in NIST — the National Institution of Standards and Technology — who has taken charge of the light source used to calibrate the spectrograph.
Wright said the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania have also helped produce parts for the telescope.
The University of Wisconsin has created the port subsystem — which will deliver light to the telescope steadily and clearly — and the University of Pennsylvania has been in charge of the housing and electronics of the light detector.
In October 2019, Wright said the spectrograph was ready to be shipped to Arizona and attached to the telescope. He added that although the team wanted more time to perfect the instrument, it had already met NASA’s requirements and needed to be sent in order to arrive on deadline.
Throughout the rest of October and November, the NEID team worked toward preparing the telescope for its first official use, otherwise known as “first light.”
Shubham Kanodia , a graduate student in the group, said he estimates that 60 percent of the group’s members are now in Arizona working directly on the spectrograph — a stainless steel container which he approximated to be the size of an SUV.
He said the team needed to inspect the instrument for any damage that may have occurred during its transportation, as well as add on any parts that had to be taken off for the trip.
Kanodia (graduate-astronomy and astrophysics) said the optical fibers and the end of the instrument that attach to the telescope also needed to be installed before first light.
Once the instrument was fully assembled, the telescope was prepared, and all remaining details on Penn State’s end were organized. Kanodia said the telescope was closed so that it could stabilize its temperature and pressure.
This process takes approximately two or three weeks, after which Kanodia explained the telescope will be ready for first light. Wright said the team believes this will occur on Nov. 22, but clarified that NASA will send out an official alert when it happens.
From here, Wright said the team will not be able to take data from the telescope until the data gathering systems and other software is working together effectively and efficiently. Because of this, he said the team’s goal is to gather data from the telescope on Dec. 15. He explained, however, that even if this is not possible on this day, data will definitely be taken at some point in 2019.
NEID principal investigator Suvrath Mahadevan — who has been in charge of making sure the production of the spectrograph is on schedule and that it satisfies all requirements — explained the objective of the project.
“NEID’s mission is to provide astronomers with the cutting edge measurement capability to discover and confirm terrestrial-mass planets,” Mahadevan, a Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics, said via email. “Hopefully, [it will also] pave the path to understanding how we might be able to mitigate the effects of stellar activity that currently limit us from discovering the signature of Earth-mass planets in or near Habitable Zones — where liquid water may exist on a planetary surface given the right conditions — of Sun-like stars.”
Wright said the team has an “optimistic goal” of finding liquid water on an exoplanet.
Stemming from this concept, Kanodia explained that even if the spectrograph does not find a planet with liquid water, it will at least narrow the search for Earth-like exoplanets and point astronomers in the correct direction.
“NEID is helping us get toward that,” Kanodia said. “If not with this instrument, it will at least tell us where to look with the next generation of data analysis and instruments to get us there.”
As a graduate student, Kanodia said being a part of NEID has been rewarding for the lessons he has been able to draw from it.
“I’ve been learning all around, so I think that’s the best part,” he said. “There’s always something more to learn.”
Similarly, Mahadevan said that although managing work for NEID alongside his duties as a professor has been busy, it is all part of the job.
“It is certainly very time consuming to develop new technology and techniques to advance our understanding of the universe we live in, but there is not a conflict between being a professor and doing this,” Mahadevan said. “As faculty members, our role is to educate as well as perform research. A complex project like NEID helps train and educate graduate and undergraduate students, as well as postdocs who will go on to be future leaders.”
Mahadevan continued to say he has been impressed by all the group has accomplished since its creation.
“To go from conceptualizing an idea to see it being built and on sky in less than four years takes a truly extraordinary team that I am proud to be a part of,” he said.
Adding to this, Wright expressed appreciation for all members of the team who have helped make NEID a reality.
“A lot of Penn State students have worked on this,” he said. “This is the product of a lot of student effort, and this team has done an amazing job getting this thing done on time.”
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