Although I often write about upcoming space missions that will advance exoplanet research, we’re also seeing a good deal of progress in Earth-based installations. In the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the Extremely Large Telescope is under construction, with first light planned for 2024. With 256 times the light gathering area of the Hubble instrument, the ELT is clearly going to be a factor in not just exoplanet work but our studies of numerous other astronomical phenomena, from the earliest galaxies in the cosmos to the question of dark energy.

Today we learn that the first six hexagonal segments for the ELT’s main mirror have been cast by the German company SCHOTT at their facility in Mainz, Germany. We’re just at the beginning of the process here, for the primary mirror is to be, at 39 meters, the largest ever made for an optical-infrared telescope. 798 individual segments — each 1.4 meters across and 5 centimeters thick — will go into it, working together as a single gigantic mirror.

Image: The first six hexagonal segments for the main mirror of ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) have been successfully cast by the German company SCHOTT at their facility in Mainz. These segments will form parts of the ELT’s 39-metre main mirror, which will have 798 segments in total when completed. The ELT will be the largest optical telescope in the world when it sees first light in 2024. Credit: ESO.

SCHOTT will embark on making a total of 900 segments, 798 for the primary mirror plus a spare set, with production rates when up to speed of about one segment per day. After cooling and a heat treatment sequence, the mirror segment blanks will be ground and polished to a precision of 15 nanometers, with shaping and polishing performed by the French company Safran Reosc, which will mount and test the individual segments.

Binocular Vision

Meanwhile, we also get word of two new instruments that will be mounted on the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), located on Mount Graham in Arizona. The SHARK instruments (System for coronagraphy with High order Adaptive optics from R to K band) are designed with an explicit exoplanet purpose, to conduct direct imaging of distant worlds.

What makes the SHARK effort intriguing is that it comprises two instruments. SHARK-VIS works in visible light, SHARK-NIR in near-infrared, and on the LBT platform, the two will be operated in parallel, using the two 8.4-meter mirrors of the observatory. Built by an international consortium led by INAF, the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, the two SHARK instruments will likewise take advantage of the observatory’s adaptive optics system, also developed by INAF. Adaptive optics corrects for distortions caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Image: Each SHARK will be installed on one side of the LBT Interferometer (LBTI), the green structure seen in the middle of the picture between the two main mirrors of LBT. Credit: SHARK Consortium/INAF.

Notice what’s happening here: The LBT, once equipped with the two SHARK add-ons, becomes the first telescope in the world that can observe exoplanets simultaneously over such a wide range of wavelengths, helping astronomers tease out planets that would otherwise be drowned in the glare of the host star. The installation, which is expected to be completed in 2019, also points the way toward the upcoming Giant Magellan Telescope, which will deploy seven 8.4-meter mirrors on the same mount instead of the LBT’s two. The GMT facility is under construction at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile’s southern Atacama Desert.

“With SHARK, we will observe exoplanets at unprecedented angular resolution and contrast, so that we will be able to go closer to their host stars than what has been achieved up to now with direct imaging,” says Valentina D’Orazi of the INAF-Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova, instrument scientist for SHARK-NIR. “This will be possible thanks to the use of coronagraphy, which blocks out the light from the central star and highly improves the contrast in the region around the source, thus allowing us to detect the planetary objects we want to study, which otherwise would remain hidden in the star light.”

Clearly we’re moving into an era where Earth-based observatories will be capable of major advances in the exoplanet hunt, complementing the upcoming space missions that will expand the planetary census and begin the analysis of smaller exoplanet atmospheres, particularly those around red dwarf stars. Both the Extremely Large Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope could be completed, if current schedules are realistic, by 2025.

An Ancient Planetary System

I just noticed that the team behind PEPSI (Potsdam Echelle Polarimetric and Spectroscopic Instrument) at the Large Binocular Telescope has released three papers analyzing high spectral resolution data from the site. Because I’ve only had the chance to skim the papers, let me just quote the news release on one of these, examining the 10-billion year old system Kepler-444:

…the star “Kepler-444”, hosting five sub-terrestrial planets, was confirmed to be 10.5 billion years old, more than twice the age of our Sun and just a little bit younger than the universe as a whole. The star is also found being poor on metals. The chemical abundance pattern from the PEPSI spectrum indicates an unusually small iron-core mass fraction of 24% for its planets if star and planets were formed together. For comparison, terrestrial planets in the solar system have typically a 30% iron-core mass fraction. “This indicates that planets around metal-poor host stars are less dense than rocky planets of comparable size around more metal-rich host stars like the Sun”, explains Claude “Trey” Mack, project scientist for the Kepler-444 observation.

The paper is Mack et al., “PEPSI deep spectra. III. A chemical analysis of the ancient planet-host star Kepler-444,” in press at Astronomy &Astrophysics (preprint).