NASA has selected a team to build a new instrument that will detect planets outside our solar system, known as exoplanets, by measuring the minuscule ‘wobbling’ of stars.
The highly precise instrument will be built by a Pennsylvania State University research group with an estimated 2019 completion date.
The instrument is named NEID, which is short for NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy, and will enable astronomers to search out and study new planets and planetary systems, as well as follow-up the discoveries of NASA’s planet-hunting missions Kepler/K2 and the in-development Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.
It works by measuring the tiny back-and-forth wobble of a star caused by the gravitational tug of a planet in orbit around it. The wobble tells scientists there is a planet orbiting the star, and the size of the wobble indicates the size of the planet.
The instrument will be attached to the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.
“The NEID instrument is a critical part of NASA’s partnership with National Science Foundation; this state-of-art precision instrument will enable the community to search for new worlds using the WIYN Telescope," said NASA’s astrophysics division director Paul Hertz.
“We look forward to many new discoveries that can then be further explored using NASA’s space telescopes.”
NEID will also help to identify promising targets for future observations that can be carried out by the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.
However, the Thirty Meter Telescope, which was planned to be built in a Hawaiian volcano considered to be one of the world's best places to view the cosmos, and could also make use of information acquired from NEID, is suffering from construction delays due to protests from native Hawaiians and environmentalists.
Meanwhile, NASA also announced it is upgrading its Florida-based Spaceport, the Kennedy Space Centre, in order to prepare it for the upcoming manned mission to Mars.
The agency recently wrapped up a comprehensive review of plans for the facilities and ground support systems that will process its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft.
Engineers are transforming Kennedy's launch infrastructure to support the heavy-lift rocket, which will be stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building on the mobile launcher and rolled out to Launch Pad 39B atop a modified crawler transporter.
The Orion spacecraft will be fuelled with propellants in the multi-payload processing facility at Kennedy prior to stacking atop the rocket. The launch team will use the new command and control system in the firing room as the clock counts down to lift-off of SLS’s first flight.
“Modernising the ground systems for our journey to Mars ensures long-term sustainability and affordability to meet future needs of the multi-use spaceport,” said Bill Hill, deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Development Division.