Brain Food: Cutting Edge Instrument Helps in the Search for Earth-Like Exoplanets

Jun 28, 2018

Astronomers at Lowell Observatory have one of the first instruments capable of detecting Earth-sized exoplanets outside our solar system.

The vacuum chamber of the Extreme Precision Spectrometer, or EXPRES. Astronomers at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory use it to search for Earth-like exoplanets.
Credit Ryan Blackman

The EXPRES, or Extreme Precision Spectrometer works in coordination with the Discovery Channel telescope to split light gathered from stars. Researchers then analyze the light to detect changes in motion, which indicates the presence of a planet.

“So, the goal is to try and finally find answers to the question of, ‘Are we alone in the universe?’” says Joe Llama, an astronomer at Lowell and specializes in exoplanets and their host stars.

“We know that life can exist on Earth-sized planets around sun-like stars. We are the example of that. This instrument is state of the art. It is designed from the ground up to be very precise. So it is designed to measure the shift in a star’s light, down to a level of 10 centimeters per second. The current state of the art spectrographs achieve about a 1-meter-per-second precision, and so this is aiming to improve on that by a factor of 10,” he says.

The EXPRES, built at Yale University, has been in Flagstaff for a few months now, collecting and analyzing data, and making sure everything is calibrated correctly. Llama says the first results should be released soon. He hopes someday the EXPRES will find a true Earth analogue.