The University of California, Santa Cruz has announced three grants totaling $2.4 million from the Heising-Simons Foundation in support of projects focused on the direct imaging of exoplanets, the thousands of planets that exist beyond our solar system.
Grants were awarded to three teams of astronomers working to develop new instruments and technologies needed for the direct imaging and spectroscopy of exoplanets — tools that can analyze light from a planet for clues to its chemical composition and characterize Earth-like planets around other stars. Direct imaging of exoplanets is difficult because the faint light emitted by planets tends to be obscured by the glare of the bright stars around which they orbit.
Recipients of the funding include Rebecca Jensen-Clem, an assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics who is working to advance adaptive optics technology, which sharpens images obtained by ground-based telescopes by removing the blurring effects of turbulence in the Earth's atmosphere; Andrew Skemer, an associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics who is developing the Santa Cruz Array of Lenslets for Exoplanet Spectroscopy (SCALES), an instrument designed to maximize the ability of astronomers to detect and characterize directly-imaged exoplanets in the thermal infrared wavelengths where they peak in brightness; and Emily Martin, a postdoctoral fellow working with Skemer who is developing the Planet as Exoplanet Analog Spectrograph (PEAS), an instrument at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii that turns the light from a planet and effectively turns it into a point source of light for spectroscopic analysis.
"The exoplanets we aim to detect and characterize with direct imaging tend to be relatively cold and emit the majority of their light in the thermal infrared," said Skemer. "By operating at longer wavelengths than existing spectrographs of this kind, SCALES will extend the wavelength range we use to characterize exoplanets and will also discover new exoplanets that are not detectable with near-infrared instruments."
(Image credit: W.M. Keck Observatory)