MRI: Development of An Instrument to Measure the Atmospheres of Exoplanets
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This project will build an instrument to measure the atmospheres of planets that orbit other stars. The instrument will image a star with a transiting exoplanet at many wavelengths at the same time. The contents of the atmosphere are detected by changes in color of the observed starlight. Making use of existing exoplanet surveys, the instrument will be able to make the first large study of exoplanet atmospheres. This could identify potentially habitable worlds around other stars, and show if our solar system is unusual among other star systems with planets. This project will provide opportunities for training undergraduate students and a graduate student in astronomical instrumentation. Development will take place at the Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory at Texas A&M University, which has an established record broadening participation in astronomical instrumentation research. Results of this research will appeal to the general public and be disseminated through news and social media.This project will build an instrument specifically designed to determine the presence and composition of atmospheres around a large number of exoplanets orbiting bright stars using existing ground-based telescopes. The Exoplanet Transmission Spectroscopy Imager (ETSI) will be the first instrument of its kind capable of operating on medium sized telescopes, and it will be deployed on the 2m telescope at the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) at Haleakala, HI. Relative fluxes measured in the various bandpasses during exoplanet transits (relative to the fluxes measured for a nearby comparison star) will either reveal atmospheric features (Rayleigh scattering, atomic and molecular absorption, clouds, etc.) or rule them out with high confidence. A very large number of potential targets from existing and on-going ground-based transit searches and recent space-based surveys such as the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) are observable with ETSI, so the instrument will be capable of making the first statistically-significant significant assay of the existence and characteristics of planet atmospheres in the Galaxy. This study will be the first to reveal whether our solar system is unique or unusual and it could identify potentially habitable worlds around other stars.This award reflects NSF''s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation''s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.