When the first exoplanet was identified via the radial velocity method, the Swiss team was able to detect a wobble in the star 51 Pegasi at a rate of 50 meters per second. The wobble is the star’s movement back and forth caused by the gravitational pull of the planet, and in that first case it was dramatic — the effects of a giant Jupiter-sized planet orbiting extremely close to the star.
Many of the early exoplanet discoveries were of similarly large planets close to their host stars, but it wasn’t because there are so many of them in the cosmos. Rather, it was a function of the capabilities of the spectrographs and other instruments used to view the star. They were pioneering breakthroughs, but they didn’t have the precision needed to measure wobbles other than the large, dramatic ones caused by a close-in, huge planet.
That was the mid 1990s, and radial velocity astronomers have worked tirelessly since to “beat down” that 50 meters per second number. And twenty years later, radial velocity astronomers using far more precise instruments and more refined techniques have succeeded substantially: 1 meter per second of wobble is now achieved for the quietest stars. That has vastly improved their ability to find smaller exoplanets further from their stars and is a major achievement. But it has nonetheless been a major frustration for astronomers because to detect terrestrial exoplanets in the Earth-sized range, they have to get much more precise — in the range of tens of centimeters per second.
A number of efforts to build systems that can get that low are underway, most notably the ESPRESSO spectrograph scheduled to begin work on the High Accuracy Radial Vlocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) in Chile next year. Then earlier this month an ambitious NASA-National Science Foundation project was awarded to Penn State University to join the race. The next-generation spectrograph is scheduled to be finished in 2019 and installed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, and its stated goal is to reach the 20 to 30 centimeters per second range.
Suvrath Mahadevan, an assistant professor at Penn State, is principal investigator for the project. It is called NEID, which means ‘to see’ in the language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land the Kitt Peak observatory is located.… Read more