Over the past decade, the search for exoplanets, or planets outside of our solar system, has heated up. NASA’s Kepler mission, which has confirmed a whopping 961 exoplanets so far, began the hunt, but now new telescopes with new technologies are following suit. Lick’s Automated Planet Finder (APF) is now also searching the skies, but it’s doing it differently than any other telescope: its systems are fully autonomous.
Once it gets dark, the APF’s systems measure things like weather and visibility, figuring out where to point itself at the sky. It tells itself to move back and forth, scanning nearby stars and collecting measurements, its spectrometers studying each star’s light looking for those that wobble (this suggests a planet’s gravity tugging on it).
Although the APF is relatively small at about eight feet wide, it is super-sensitive, and can measure more precisely than other telescopes thanks to new optical technology. Its measurements go into a huge database, where special software goes through the data and finds the wobbling stars, along with any other measurements that pinpoint a planet’s location.
Thanks to the APF, astronomers have already confirmed two new planetary systems. Starting with data from other telescopes that suggested these systems, astronomers used the APF to validate them. One system, HD 141399, has four gas giant planets, much like our own solar system. The other, GJ 687, has a planet about the size of Neptune that orbits a red dwarf star. Of course, this discovery isn’t really what astronomers involved with APF are after. The idea is to find Earth-sized planets in their stars’ habitable zones.
Eighty percent of APF's time is spent hunting for planets, while the other 20 is spent on studying supernovas and the explosions related to them, thanks to its ability to move to specific parts of the sky within seconds. It means APF can capture those moments before it’s too late.
Via UC Santa Cruz