Washington, June 6: Astronomers have constructed a
special-purpose telescope that will allow them to hunt for
earthlike planets circling other stars.
The instrument, called the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT), has been assembled and is being tested at Vanderbilt's Dyer Observatory in Nashville, Tennessee, US.
Shortly, it will be shipped to South Africa where it will become only the second dedicated planet-finder scanning the stars in the southern sky. The instrument will be set up at the South African Astronomical Observatory located about 200 miles northeast of the city of Cape Town. The South Africans have built a special enclosure to hold the telescope. They will maintain the instrument and ship the data that it produces back to Nashville. The telescope is designed for remote operation so astronomers at both universities can control it. As its name implies, KELT is a very small telescope, about the size of some of the telescopes used by amateur astronomers. It uses a professional quality photographic lens and has an extremely high quality imaging system that captures the light and converts it to digital data. "The telescope has been designed to detect planets passing across the face of bright stars," said Joshua Pepper, the post-doctoral fellow who is managing the project.
If a planet crosses the face of the star, it blocks a small percentage of the sunlight. KELT is designed to detect these subtle fluctuations in nearby stars similar to the sun. Unlike large telescopes that focus in on small parts of the sky in order to produce extremely high resolution images, KELT looks at large areas of the sky that contain thousands of stars. In order to see variations in brightness, it must frequently revisit each area many times every night. As a result, the small scope will produce prodigious amounts of data.
In order to pick out the variations caused by planets from other effects, such as dimming caused by passing clouds or variations in a star's overall brightness, the astronomers will process the data with the supercomputer in Vanderbilt's Advanced Computing Center for Research and Education.