NASA recently awarded researchers at the University of Montana a grant to support a $1.125 million project to build a dedicated observatory to detect Earth-like exoplanets.
Are we alone? Is Earth the sole example of life in the Universe, or are there others? To find out, researchers at UM, together with partner institutions Harvard, the California Institute of Technology and Pennsylvania State University are building Project Minerva.
On the cutting edge of the search for new planets, Minerva is an array of four telescopes and a purpose-built, state-of-the-art spectrometer capable of detecting small, rocky planets in orbit around nearby stars. The goal of Minerva is to detect and characterize nearby exoplanets in the "habitable zone" – the region around a star where conditions are suitable for the presence of liquid water, which is the most basic building block of life as we know it.
The team is led by UM astrophysicist Nate McCrady, an associate professor in UM's Department of Physics and Astronomy and a co-principal investigator for the project. Co-investigators on the grant are UM Associate Professor Dan Reisenfeld, also from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and Adam Bolton, assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Utah.
The NASA award will enable UM to purchase one of the four 0.7-meter telescopes that, when used in conjunction with the others in the Minerva array, will allow astronomers to search the skies with innovative precision. It's the only exoplanet project of its kind.
"This award is a tremendous boost for astrophysics at the University of Montana, as it will place our students and faculty on the forefront of exoplanet research," said Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship.
The team currently is evaluating host sites for the telescope and plans to select one this coming fall. Once in place, UM students and faculty will be able to operate the telescope from a remote observing control room on UM's mountain campus in Missoula.
"This project will establish world-class exoplanet research in Montana," McCrady said.
The NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research provides seed funding to build infrastructure for nationally-competitive research in NASA research areas of interest.