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ESO’s ESPRESSO Spectrograph Makes First Observations

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ANTOFAGASTA, Chile, Dec. 18, 2017 — The Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) has successfully made its first observations at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile.

Installed on the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope (VLT), ESPRESSO will search for exoplanets with unprecedented precision by looking at the minuscule changes in the light of their host stars. For the first time ever, an instrument will be able to sum up the light from all four VLT telescopes and achieve the light-collecting power of a 16-m telescope.

This third-generation echelle spectrograph is the successor to ESO’s HARPS instrument at the La Silla Observatory. HARPS can attain a precision of 1 m/s in velocity measurements, whereas ESPRESSO aims to achieve a precision of just a few cm/s, due to advances in technology and its placement on a much bigger telescope.

“This success is the result of the work of many people over 10 years. ESPRESSO isn’t just the evolution of our previous instruments like HARPS, but it will be transformational, with its higher resolution and higher precision,” said Francesco Pepe from the University of Geneva in Switzerland, lead scientist for ESPRESSO. “And unlike earlier instruments, it can exploit the VLT’s full collecting power — it can be used with all four of the VLT Unit Telescopes at the same time to simulate a 16-m telescope. ESPRESSO will be unsurpassed for at least a decade — now I am just impatient to find our first rocky planet.”

ESPRESSO can detect tiny changes in the spectra of stars as a planet orbits. This radial velocity method works because a planet’s gravitational pull influences its host star, causing it to wobble slightly. The less massive the planet, the smaller the wobble. For rocky and possibly life-bearing exoplanets to be detected, an instrument with very high precision is required. With this method, ESPRESSO will be able to detect some of the lightest planets ever found.

The test observations included observations of stars and known planetary systems. Comparisons with existing HARPS data showed that ESPRESSO can obtain similar quality data with dramatically less exposure time.

“Bringing ESPRESSO this far has been a great accomplishment, with contributions from an international consortium as well as many different groups within ESO: engineers, astronomers and administration,” said instrument scientist Gaspare Lo Curto at ESO. “They had to not just install the spectrograph itself, but also the very complex optics that bring the light together from the four VLT unit telescopes.”

Although the main goal of ESPRESSO is to push planet hunting to the next level, finding and characterizing less massive planets and their atmospheres, it also has many other applications. ESPRESSO will also be the world’s most powerful tool to test whether the physical constants of nature have changed since the universe was young. Such tiny changes are predicted by some theories of fundamental physics, but have never been convincingly observed.

ESO is an intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and a ground-based astronomical observatory supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K., along with the host state of Chile and by Australia as a strategic partner.
Dec 2017
BusinessESOESPRESSOEuropean Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern HemisphereAmericasopticsspectroscopyEuropelight speed

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