A group of Scottish scientists were recently awarded a £250,000 grant to build an infrared laser device to seek out new life (i.e. small, earth-like planets that orbit stars) and new civilisations (planets capable of containing life), and boldly explore where no man has gone before (basically distant solar systems).
It's going to be the world's most powerful light-measuring spectrometer (see artist's rendering above). Its goal will be to interpret signals from outer space using a "comb laser device." The laser will be tested and then fitted at the world's largest and most powerful telescope, the soon-to-be built EELT (European Extremely Large Telescope, yes that's its real name).
Professor Derryck Reid, head of optics and photonics technology at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, said that the laser will allow astronomers to hunt planets with a far greater degree of accuracy than has previously been possible. "Current technology is very good but this is a new technology that will help us in the search for new Earth-sized planets."
The EELT is similar to the Hubble telescope, in that its purpose is to explore the "far reaches of the universe" by interpreting light data. The EELT will cost Europe a pretty penny, about £1 billion. It's going to be built on top of a Chilean mountain and will hopefully be operational within the next ten years.
Currently telescopes can detect Jupiter-sized planets in other solar systems by detecting the "wobble" in light waves as they orbit their stars. However, the astronomical equipment is not sensitive enough to find some smaller Earth-like planets which may support life. The laser developed by the Heriot-Watt team, which uses the infrared spectrum, helps astronomers to detect even minor wobbles that indicate the presence of a smaller planet. The EELT will be able to observe objects that are 100 times fainter than those that can be found by most telescopes.
The Scottish scientists are receiving funds from the UK Science and Technologies Funding Council, with the intent that their technology, a "groundbreaking "comb laser" technology – so called because the frequency in which it operates resembles a pattern of closely spaced comb teeth," will work within the EELT.
Reid said: "What we are bringing to the table is a new form of laser technology. It will interpret light from distant galaxies in more detail and identify the existence of planets and stars. "Hundreds of planets have already been found but this will give us an even more distant reach."
At 40 metres wide the EELT "will be the largest optical telescope in the world." Construction began at Cerro Armazones a couple years ago. The goals of the super-large telescope include "advancing astrophysical knowledge through detailed studies of planets around other stars and the first galaxies in the universe." It's already has the technological specs to back this up, considering it intends "to gather 13 times more light than the largest of its rivals." I didn't know telescopes had rivals.
Successful development of the Heriot-Watt laser would help boost the British presence in the project, said Cunningham, who is based at the UK Astronomy and Technology Centre in Edinburgh. He said: "It [the comb laser] will help us measure whether the planets are there or not. We can detect the gaseous giants but this will help us to detect some of the smaller planets the size of Earth or Mars. The EELT will be the biggest optical and infrared telescope in the world. "It will have enormous impact in enabling astronomers to probe and understand a whole range of phenomena from planets around nearby stars, perhaps including planets where life may exist."
The EELT aims to provide answers to how planetary systems are formed and "detect water and organic molecules in the gaseous discs around stars in the making:"
"Thus, the EELT will answer fundamental questions regarding planet formation and evolution in solar systems at different evolutionary stages to our own and will bring us a huge step closer to answering the question: are we alone?"