World’s biggest binoculars will be able to spot alien planets thanks to new tech

Astronomers are fitting the world’s biggest pair of binoculars with Hubble-beating technology to help them spot alien planets orbiting distant stars.

The twin eyes of the Large Binocular Telescope are open for business on the summit of Mount Graham, Arizona. Image credit: Large Binocular Telescope Observatory

The Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) on Mount Graham, Arizona, works just like your binoculars at home. But instead of twin normal-sized lenses, it has a pair of mirrors that are each 27 ft wide (8.4 metres).

Italian-led engineers are building a pair of instruments called SHARK that will become the astronomers’ “eyes” that peer through the LBT, which is managed by the University of Arizona.

SHARK stands for “System for coronagraphy with High order Adaptive optics from R to K band”, a mouthful of a name which describes how the equipment will work.

Put simply, the instruments will block out bright glare from the stars themselves to allow astronomers to take direct photographic images of their incredibly faint planets, known as exoplanets.

They will be able to observe in even sharper detail than the Hubble Space Telescope, thanks to technology on the LBT that automatically corrects for image distortions caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere.

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The new set-up, which will observe in visible and near infrared light, is expected to be operational and scouring the heavens for planets by the end of next year, 2019.

It is being developed by an international consortium, led by INAF, the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, which will also manage their scientific use. INAF also built the technology that compensates for atmospheric turbulence, known as adaptive optics.

Christian Veillet, director of the Large Binocular Telescope, said the main problem facing exoplanet hunters was the extreme contrast between the planets’ faintness and the glare of their host stars’ light. The SHARK instruments would be able to tease out the faint signal from the planets.

The astronomer leading the project, Fernando Pedichini of the INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma, said: “With this great combination, we will finally be able to reveal many exoplanets around stars in our galactic neighborhood and better characterize their properties, by also using images in optical light taken for the first time in the northern hemisphere.”

Colleague Jacopo Farinato said the advanced instrumentation would allow astronomers to study not only exoplanets, but also astrophysical phenomena. He said: “For instance, we will be able to study with formidable accuracy disks and jets of young stars, gas envelopes around evolved stars, asteroids and minor bodies of the solar system and even the brightest extragalactic sources such as active galactic nuclei.”

The LBT is sited at an altitude of 10,700 ft (3,300 m) in the Pinaleno Mountains of southeastern Arizona, and is a part of the Mount Graham International Observatory.

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