Black box set to revolutionize the search for life beyond Earth

In the world’s driest desert, an unassuming black box called “Espresso” is about to begin a very big mission: scouring the universe for planets like ours to find signs of life beyond Earth. Espresso, an instrument known as a spectrograph, has a humble appearance that belies its cutting-edge technology: it is the most precise instrument of its kind ever built, 10 times stronger than its most powerful predecessor. In the Atacama desert, in northern Chile, Espresso will be hooked up to four telescopes so big that scientists simply named them the Very Large Telescope, or VLT. Together, they will search the skies for exoplanets — those outside our own solar system — looking for ones that are similar to Earth. The Atacama is a particularly good place for this kind of exploration. Its skies are completely cloudless most of the year, which is why the highly respected European Southern Observatory, which runs the VLT program, set up shop there in the first place. In fact, many of the world’s major telescopes are located in the area. By 2020, the Atacama is expected to be home to about 70 percent of the world’s astronomy infrastructure. Espresso stands for Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. It will analyze the light of the stars observed by the VLT, enabling it to determine whether planets orbit around them, and important information about those planets themselves: what their atmosphere is like, whether they have oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and whether there is water — all essential for supporting life. “Espresso will be available on all four telescopes at once, which is something that had never been done before. That means the likelihood of finding planets similar to Earth in mass and size, or the conditions for life, are greater,” said Italian astronomer Gaspare Lo Curto.

Very cool!!   🙂

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