Blazing a Trail: Detectors and Techniques for Imaging Habitable Exoplanets with Ground-Based Telescopes

  • TWCF Number:

    0330

  • Project Duration:

    September 1, 2018 - August 31, 2020

  • Core Funding Area:

    Big Questions

  • Region:

    North America

  • Amount Awarded:

    $609,211

Director: Michael R. Meyer

Institution: Regents of the University of Michigan

Humanity has always searched the heavens for answers to big questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. According to University of Michigan astronomer Dr. Michael Meyer, the answers to these questions may come from finding man’s next place in the universe. To aid the search for a nearby planet that can sustain life, Dr. Meyer and his team are developing technology and software that will improve celestial imaging.

Since the introduction of photographic plates for celestial imaging in the 19th century, advances in detector technology have played a vital role in astronomical discovery. Imaging these celestial bodies—which emit light at varying frequencies—is key to the quest to find habitable exoplanets. Today, visible-light-sensitive and low-infrared sensors are approaching 100% light gathering efficiency. But habitable planets outside our solar system emit light at mid-infrared wavelengths, where detector technology has lagged behind.

The team has been working with complementary research groups to accelerate mid-infrared detector technology, In this project, they will define a program capable of imaging an Earth-sized planet in the liquid-water zone around Centauri A, the nearest Sun-like star outside of our own planetary system.

This research would develop new technologies and observation strategies, lay the foundations for even more powerful experiments with the next generation of large telescopes, and develop a new large-format detector to overcome previous performance barriers. With this research, the estimated time to detect an Earth-like planet around a nearby star would decrease dramatically.

The project team will also develop customized software for signal processing, and analyze the experimental set-ups and observational approaches needed to detect habitable planets around the nearest stars. The investigators will leverage decades of experience developing, testing, and utilizing mid-IR detectors on the world’s largest telescopes, with investment in fabricating a new detector and developing test facilities to probe their performance. They will also bring together international leaders in data processing techniques relevant to exoplanet imaging, as well as a team of experts to plan observations.

Image credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

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