The new exoplanet hunter NGTS has been activated

The NGTS dome during the day. In the background the VLT and VISTA domes (Photo ESO/R. Wesson)
The NGTS dome during the day. In the background the VLT and VISTA domes (Photo ESO/R. Wesson)

In recent days the NGTS (Next-Generation Transit Survey) has been put into operation. It’s a new instrument to search for exoplanets built to find super-Earths with a size starting from twice the Earth up to Neptune-like planets eight times the size of the Earth. It’s composed of an array of 12 telescopes with an aperture of 20 cm each which is located at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

The NGTS was built using the experience of the SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) project, an international collaboration involving eight academic institutions in the search for exoplanets through the transit method using two automated telescopes. A small prototype of the NGTS was tested in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, the same location as the SuperWASP-North, between 2009 and 2010.

Some of the partners involved in the NGTS project are the same as the SuperWASP but also include others such as DLR, the German space agency. This isn’t an ESO project although there’s a collaboration between ESO and NGTS that will be tight. The NGTS was built at ESO’s Observatory because in that area of Chile there are optimal conditions for astronomy as it’s a desert area very dry and at high altitude.

The tests and the experience of SuperWASP allowed to develop the technologies required to achieve the remarkable accuracy in the measurement of the stars brightness needed to find exoplanets. The NGTS will explore a wider area than the Kepler space telescope, the most famous among exoplanet hunters.

This will allow to find brighter small exoplanets that can be subjected to further studies, which is one of the project’s goals. Other telescopes such as ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) will be used for detailed observations of the exoplanets discovered. In 2017 ESA should launch the CHEOPS space probe for the study of exoplanets formation and it will benefit from the the NGTS work as well.

In addition to finding new exoplanets, the NGTS will try to measure some of their characteristics. Those bright enough will provide information that could allow to measure their mass. They can then try to estimate their density and their composition. In some cases, it will be also possible to probe their atmosphere.

Peter Wheatley of the University of Warwick, one of the NGTS project leads, stated that the discoveries that will be made with this instrument and the follow-up observations by telescopes on the ground and from space will be important steps in the study of the atmosphere and the composition of small planets such as Earth. Therefore, the NGTS is designed to find planets larger than the Earth but will also be useful for research on smaller planets.

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