Because of its state-of-the-art technology, the instrument can detect planets as small as Earth. Experts say that it can even detect smaller planets. Furthermore, it can detect Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of smaller, cooler stars.
Our galaxy is a pretty big place. And it is crowded. Crowded by stars, dust, planets, possible moons around said planets, countless comets, asteroids, remnants of planets, and whatnot else. To discover these wonders of the galaxy, we need pretty sensitive telescopes. We need big telescopes. Luckily for us, we are developing observational devices at an incredible pace. The latest technology to help us explore the cosmos was recently mounted at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. The Keck Observatory in Hawaii has been upgraded with an instrument designed to discover and characterize hundreds and, possibly, thousands of exoplanets. Using the wobble method or the radial velocity method, the Keck Planet Finder (KPF) instrument captured its first data on November 9.
To try out the new astronomical “toy,” scientists decided to observe our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter. While KPF will routinely observe stars, the KPF team chose to celebrate KPF’s planet-seeking capabilities by directly observing Jupiter as a warm-up observation.
Keck: A leap forward
Hilton Lewis, the director of Keck Observatory, said that the KPF marks a significant step forward in the search for habitable Earth-like planets around other stars. The discovery of extraterrestrial life has been one of the scientists’ most promising goals for almost a decade. Finally, the KPF will allow them to take the search for habitable worlds to the next level. And scientists acknowledge it has been difficult to find small Earth-like planets. Finding such planets rasies the likelihood of discovering alien life. But finding them is hard due to the small effects these planets have on their host stars. In other words, it was difficult to spot these worlds, given the technology at our disposal. With the Keck Planet Finder, things have changed.
The stellar dance
KPF detects a planet by observing the periodic motions of its host star caused by the planet’s orbit around the star and its gravitational tug on it. The light of the stars wobbles, much like the sound of a siren changes in frequency depending on whether it’s heading away from or toward you. This is called the Doppler shift. In a spectrum (a display of the different frequencies of light from a star), KPF will look for this stellar wobble to detect planets. Generally, the smaller the planet, the smaller the wobble. Because of its state-of-the-art technology, the instrument can detect planets as small as Earth. Experts say that it can even detect smaller planets. Furthermore, it can detect Earth-mass planets in the habitable zones of smaller, cooler stars but not in the habitable zones of sun-like stars. At least not yet.
Tune and refine KPF
Astronomically, a habitable zone (also called the Goldilocks zone) is the region around a star where water can exist in liquid form. Water is a necessity for life as we know it. According to Howard, the habitable zones near cooler stars are closer to them. In this zone, planets that are similar to Earth would huddle close to their stars as if they were a campfire. To be able to detect Earth-mass planets orbiting stars like our sun, the true Earth analogs, we will continue to tune and refine KPF until we can detect even fainter wobbles, the researcher explained, announcing that this is just the beginning. Speaking of true Earth twins, a recent study found that only one percent of habitable planets out there are true pale blue dots like Earth.
Answers to mysteries
Further, the instrument will answer mysteries about the surprisingly diverse range of planetary systems that have been discovered thus far. It will also determine the composition of thousands of known planets. In addition to discovering nearby planets, the KPF will also identify those that can be imaged directly by other telescopes, such as the planned Thirty-Meter Telescope. This telescope might take direct images of planets orbiting their stars.
With KPF, Howard says we will be able to measure the masses, orbits, and compositions of smaller planets with a much higher degree of precision than we can with our current tools. But more importantly, the instrument will also be faster. This means it will allow scientists to measure planet masses in less time than before. This means that it will enable scientists to study a far greater number of planets than previously