New instrument to detect potentially habitable planets

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They were researchers at the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences (IA), who are currently participating in an international project, which aims to create a new instrument capable of detecting rocky planets orbiting stars that are potentially habitable.

This new device, called NIPRS (Near Infra-Red Planet Searcher), will be installed in the 3.6-meter telescope of the Observatory of La Silla (Chile), of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), astronomical organization of which Portugal is part, according to an IA statement released this week.

“NIRPS will be the first ESO spectrograph dedicated to detecting planets around M dwarfs, the most abundant type of stars in our galaxy”, said Pedro Figueira, an IA and University of Porto researcher.

A spectrograph is an instrument capable of decomposing light into its various colors, or wavelengths (frequencies), thus giving rise to a spectrum, considered the “rainbow of the star”, explained to Lusa the investigator of AI and Faculty of Sciences of the University of Porto (FCUP), Nuno Cardoso Santos.

NIRPS will start operating in the last quarter of 2019, and will measure radial velocities of red dwarf stars in order to detect potentially inhabitable terrestrial rocky planets.

The Radial Velocity Method detects exoplanets (planets located outside the solar system) thus measuring small variations in the velocity (radial) of the star, originated by the movement that the orbit of these planets impresses in the star.

“If the star has a planet around it, its motion is disturbed. Measuring the star’s velocity day after day, we can see if it moves around the planet”, explained Nuno Cardoso Santos.

NIRPS will join the high-resolution HARPS spectrograph, installed in the ESO’s 3.6-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory, thereby extending its observation capabilities to infrared, as read in the news release.

According to Nuno Cardoso Santos, NIRPS will complement data from the current HARPS, making it possible to observe simultaneously in the infrared.

The observation in the infrared allows access to another spectral domain, which allows “to do new science”, underlined the researcher.

The consortium responsible for the creation of NIRPS is led by universities in Montreal, Canada, and Geneva, Switzerland.

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