New Exoplanet Instrument Achieves First Light!

SOCORRO, N.M., April 7, 2014 – Four and half years since its initial conception, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument, or NESSI, achieved first light using the Magdalena Ridge Observatory 2.4-meter telescope.

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Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman and Dr. Luke Schmidt in the lab with Tech's exoplanet survey instrument.



The NESSI team monitors progress during initial observations.

New Mexico Tech photos


In the past, exoplanet spectroscopy was only possible with space-based telescope. NESSI is one of the first ground-based characterization instruments and is attracting attention from astrophysicists around the world, placing MRO in the forefront of exoplanet research. The new instrument is a multi-object spectrometer that operates in the near-infrared wavelengths.

“First light is always a big moment for any new instrument. The team is very excited about getting light through the system, and the performance is great,”said Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, the Science Principal Investigator and MRO Project Scientist.

NESSI was designed, built, and optimized for probing chemical composition of atmospheres of exoplanets – planets orbiting distant stars, outside of our solar system. Using spectroscopy to observe exoplanets’ atmospheres allows astronomers to study the molecular composition of the planet’s atmospheres, making it possible to identify the presence, and quantify the abundance, of oxygen and carbon-bearing molecules, as well as temperature and winds. NESSI will observe exoplanets in our galaxy, most of which are within 100 light years from our solar system.

During the first night's observations, NESSI collected light from several targets, including some bright stars and globular clusters. Pollux, a bright start in the Gemini constellation was the first target because it has a good infrared signal for the detector.

Initially conceptualized in 2009, NESSI is funded by New Mexico Tech and NASA EPSCoR at New Mexico State University. Vice President of Research Dr. Van Romero led the efforts to secure the funding.

“The new instrument brings diversity to the observatory’s capability, which is vital in today’s competitive funding environment. But, more importantly, it brings new science to our campus, which means new opportunities for our students,” Romero said.

The optical and mechanical design was completed at MRO with collaborators from Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Most of the fabrication of components was completed in Arizona and New Mexico. The instrument was assembled at the MRO optics lab located on the Tech campus.

Exoplanets were first suspected to exist as early as the 19th century but the first confirmed discovery did not occur until 1988. Since then hundreds of exoplanets have been identified orbiting their host stars and scientists are now moving from the discovery phase to the characterization phase.

The JPL team, led by Dr. Mark Swain, initially devised the novel approach used by NESSI, using infrared data from ground-based telescopes to acquire and deduce information about exoplanet atmospheres.

NESSI is unique, as its design has been optimized to have very few moving components, which allows for great stability and to have sensitive detectors with which to measure the exoplanet atmospheres.

“NESSI is the first purpose-built spectrometer to measure exoplanet transit spectroscopy,” Creech-Eakman said.

Now that NESSI achieved first light, the team plans to continue using the instrument to take spectra on many types of objects, including stars, brown dwarfs, planets, and other galaxies. It also has imaging modes and the team plans to test these capabilities. 30 nights have been allocated by the MRO team to studying exoplanets. Each target requires half of a night to collect full spectra.

“There has been lots of excitement and interest about NESSI from groups of scientists interested in measuring exoplanet atmospheres, and so that is our main goal. Others will undoubtedly want to try other science, so how much gets done with NESSI will depend on getting time on the 2.4-meter telescope,” Creech-Eakman said.

The MRO 2.4-meter telescope became operational in late 2007 and is primarily utilized to observe, track, and characterize astronomical targets within the solar system, artificial Earth satellites, space vehicles, and terrestrial military targets. The observatory is at 10,600 feet elevation in the Magdalena Mountains of the Cibola National Forest, about 30 miles west of Socorro.

MRO was formed in 1996 as a consortium with plans to build and operate a 2.4-meter telescope and a 10-element optical and NIR interferometer (MROI).

– NMT –