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ESO’s observatory to host new ‘planet hunter’

05 Sep 2017

Near Infra Red Planet Searcher to be installed on the 3.6m telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

A powerful new instrument called NIRPS (Near Infra Red Planet Searcher) is to be installed on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Built by an international collaboration (see below) co-led by the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic team at the Université de Montréal and the Astronomy Department team at the Université de Genève, NIRPS is a radial velocity infrared spectrograph designed to detect Earth-like rocky planets around the coolest stars.

The first phase of the NIRPS project will involve the installation of a new Cassegrain adapter to replace the one currently on the ESO 3.6m telescope.

The new unit will include adaptive optics capability and will be commissioned using the HARPS spectrograph. Meanwhile the NIRPS instrument will be assembled and tested in Canada, following which it will be integrated with the new Cassegrain adapter on the telescope.

NIRPS will complement the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) instrument currently attached to the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. HARPS is the world’s most productive planet-hunting instrument using the radial velocity method, which has revolutionized understanding of exoplanetary systems.

’Red arm’

NIRPS will become the so-called “red arm” of HARPS, extending the telescope’s capability into the infrared and allowing astronomers to characterise planetary systems. ESO will allocate 725 observing nights over a five-year period to the NIRPS team.

The main goal of NIRPS is to use the radial velocity method to detect and characterise planets orbiting cool, red, low-mass M-type stars. In particular, NIRPS aims to find Earth-like rocky planets that could potentially be habitable.

M-type stars are of particular interest because the radial velocity variations induced by an orbiting planet are larger for a less-massive star than a Sun-like star, and hence their planets — including those in the habitable zone — are more easily detected.

NIRPS will operate in the infrared as this is the main range of wavelengths emitted by such small, cool stars. For red stars, which are the most common kind in the solar neighbourhood, NIRPS is expected to produce data that are at least as accurate as currently available with the HARPS instrument. NIRPS is expected to see first light in the last quarter of 2019.

Collaboration

The collaboration consists of: OMM and the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) at the Université de Montréal in Canada; the Astronomy Department at the Université de Genève in Switzerland; the Université de Grenoble-Alpes in France; the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias in Spain; the NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics in Victoria, Canada; the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, Univ. of Porto and Lisbon in Portugal; the Instituto Mauá de Tecnologia in Brazil; and the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil.

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