Vanderbilt astronomers have constructed a special-purpose telescope that will allow them to participate in one of the hottest areas in astronomy: the 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 Observa-tory. 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 KELT project is a collaboration between Vanderbilt and the University of Cape Town. The instrument will be set up at the South African Astronomical Observatory about 200 miles northeast of Cape Town. South Africans will maintain the instrument and ship data back to Nashville. Astronomers at both universities can control the telescope by remote operation.
KELT is about the size of some telescopes used by amateur astronomers, and its optics are surprisingly modest: It uses a professional-quality photographic lens. But it has an extremely high-quality imaging system that captures light and converts it to digital data.
“The telescope has been designed to detect planets passing across the face of bright stars,” says Joshua Pepper, the postdoctoral fellow who is managing the project. Unlike large telescopes that focus in on small parts of the sky 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 revisit each area many times every night. As a result, the small scope will produce prodigious amounts of data—enough to fill a typical laptop computer’s hard drive in a few days.
“Astronomy is entering a period in which the way astronomers do their work is fundamentally changing,” notes Associate Professor of Astronomy Keivan Stassun. “The traditional model has been that of
an individual astronomer, or a small team of astronomers, going to a telescope and pointing it at a star or a galaxy, collecting data, analyzing the data and publishing the results. But with the advent of high-performance computers, robotic telescopes and digital detectors that are able to see large swaths of the sky at once, the quantities of data we can collect are rapidly increasing, so we need new ways of analyzing them in real time.”
The Cape Town agreement is one of five core partnerships established by the Vanderbilt International Office. The other four are with the University of Melbourne (Australia), the University of São Paulo (Brazil), Fudan University (China), and Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Chile).