A new project called Exoplanets in Transits and their Atmospheres (ExTrA) has been set in motion at the European Southern Observatory’s site at La Silla (Chile). Funded by the European Research Council and the French Agence National de la Recherche, ExTrA’s three 0.6-metre telescopes will be operated remotely from Grenoble, France. This is an exoplanet transit effort centered around finding and characterizing Earth-sized planets orbiting M-dwarf stars.
Not an easy task from the ground, as lead researcher Xavier Bonfils makes clear, though if you’re going to attempt it, northern Chile offers optimum conditions:
“La Silla was selected as the home of the telescopes because of the site’s excellent atmospheric conditions. The kind of light we are observing — near-infrared — is very easily absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, so we required the driest and darkest conditions possible. La Silla is a perfect match to our specifications.”
To do its work, ExTrA weds spectroscopic information to traditional photometry. The collected light from the target star is fed through optical fibres into a multi-object spectrograph. Known as differential photometry, the method involves collecting light not only from the target but also from four comparison stars. The comparison helps the technology filter out atmospheric ...