On Thursday 17 November the European Research Council (ERC) announced to David Ehrenreich, leader of NCCR PlanetS sub-project 3.2 in Geneva, that his project submitted in February 2016 would be funded by a Consolidator grant. This grant is awarded by the ERC to researchers who have between 7 and 12 years of experience and it represents an amount of nearly 2 million euros for 5 years. Last year more than 2000 projects were submitted and only 302 were accepted for a total of 585 million Euros.
David Ehrenreich, University of Geneva. (Image PlanetS)
David Ehrenreich’s project is entitled Future Of UppeR Atmospheric Characterization of Exoplanets with Spectroscopy (FOUR ACES) and should allow to partly determine the chemical composition of planetary atmospheres. It is now known that exoplanets very close to their stars lose a part of their atmosphere due to the extreme irradiation they receive. This heating caused by the star has the effect of extending enormously the highest layers of the atmosphere, which then become easier to sound. The idea is to use this extension of high atmospheres as a magnifying glass to access the properties of the lower layers, more difficult to probe. Thus, detecting hydrogen escaping from an Earth-like exoplanet could betray the presence of water in its atmosphere. This project is based mainly on two major results obtained from PlanetS (see “a planet disguised as a comet” and “hot and stormy at high altitudes“) with the Hubble space telescope and the HARPS spectrograph at the 3.6 m telescope La Silla in Chile.
“Thanks to FOUR ACES, we will be able to set up a team dedicated to these issues,” said David Ehrenreich, a team that is expected to play a major role in analyzing the largest exoplanet program ever undertaken with Hubble (more than one month of observations!) and in the exploitation of the future ESPRESSO spectrograph at the Very Large Telescope. This program will allow to understand precisely how stellar heating triggers atmospheric evaporation and will try to detect the high atmospheres of habitable planets within 5 years.
The signing of the agreement with the ERC is expected to take place in March 2017. Scientific activities will start in the second half of 2017.
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