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Portugal in the front line for the discovery of new worlds

Espectrógrafo ESPRESSO

The Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) – an FCT Unit – was part of the team that built ESPRESSO, a high resolution spectrograph that aims to identify Earth-like exoplanets.

With an extraordinary precision, this instrument took about ten years to be planned and built, and will now be set up at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, where it will operate.

The researchers expect the first data to be obtained by mid-2018.

The development and construction of ESPRESSO resulted from a consortium of academic and scientific institutions from Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, as well as ESO members, with Portuguese participation being led by IA (Universidade do Porto e Universidade de Lisboa).

ESPRESSO will allow researchers to decompose and analyze light coming from the stars, and, with this information, measure the speed at which the stars move closer or farther away from us.

Thanks to its high precision, capable of measuring speed variations of less than 1 km/h, it will be allow to measure the motion induced on the star by the gravitational influence of a planet as small as Earth. It will also be possible to determine the mass of the planet. This data is expected to enable researchers to identify chemical elements in some of the planets’ atmospheres.

The IA-led team was responsible for developing and installing the optical system that collects the light captured by each of the four telescopes making up the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) and takes it to the location where the spectrograph will be installed.

The project’s Portuguese component was developed in partnership between the IA and the Laboratório de Óptica, Lasers e Sistemas (LOLS), a technology transfer unit of Faculdade de Ciências da Universidade de Lisboa (FCUL).

The IA research team will now take part in the ESPRESSO scientific mission, together with other consortium partners, for a total of 273 observation nights.

In addition to the discovery of exoplanets, the IA team is responsible for defining priority targets in fundamental physics, since this device will allow researchers to test, with unprecedented accuracy, the universality of the laws of physics in the Universe.

Learn more on the IA website
Image credits: University of Geneva