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Portuguese in the front line for the discovery of new worlds


ESPRESSO Spectrograph

The Institute for Astrophysics and Space Sciences(IA), an FCT Unit, was part of the team that built ESPRESSO, a high-resolution spectrograph that aims to identify Earth-like exoplanets. This instrument of extraordinary precision, which took about ten years to plan and build, will be installed at the European Southern Observatory(ESO) in Chile, where it will operate from. The researchers expect the first data to be obtained from mid-2018.

The development and construction of ESPRESSO resulted from a consortium of academic and scientific institutions from Portugal, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, as well as ESO members, with the Portuguese participation led by IA (University of Porto and University of Lisbon).

ESPRESSO will be able to break down and analyze the light coming from stars and, with this information, measure how fast the stars are moving towards or away from us. With its level of accuracy, capable of measuring a velocity variation of less than one kilometer per hour, it will be possible to measure the motion induced in the star by the gravitational influence of a planet as small as the Earth. It will also be possible to determine the mass of the planet. It is also hoped that the data will make it possible, in some cases, to identify chemical elements present in its atmosphere.

The team led by the IA was responsible for developing and installing the optical system that collects the light captured by each of the four telescopes of the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and takes it to the location where this spectrograph will be installed. The Portuguese technological component of the project was developed in partnership between the IA and the Optics, Lasers and Systems Laboratory(LOLS), a technology transfer unit of the Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon(FCUL).

The IA researchers will now participate in the scientific exploration of ESPRESSO, together with the consortium partners, with a total of 273 observing nights. In addition to discovering exoplanets, the IA is responsible for defining priority targets in fundamental physics, since this instrument will make it possible to test, with unprecedented accuracy, the universality of the laws of physics in the universe.

Learn more on the IAwebsite
Image credit: University of Geneva