An exciting approach to studying planets around other stars exploits recent technical advances in adaptive optics to directly image the exoplanets while the spatially concentrated but very bright light from the nearby star is suppressed by a coronagraph. Outstanding technical and theoretical progress in recent years has allowed this approach to achieve extremely high contrast, and thus detect very faint companions to stars. This approach to hunting for stellar companions is in some ways complementary to the well-established radial-velocity technique, and may be able to unearth different classes of exoplanets and determine different things about them. The combination of multiple state-of-the-art technologies will make the instrument being built here capable of substantially better contrast than competing instruments, and make it the first capable of high contrast coronagraphy at visible wavelengths.
Coronagraphic capabilities are leveraged from the existing and well-proven PALM-3000 (P3K) extreme adaptive optics system operating at the Palomar Observatory. The detector technology is very novel, making use of recent developments in superconducting Microwave Kinetic Inductance Detectors (MKIDs) that can spectrally resolve the wavelengths intrinsically (with no external dispersing optics) of the optical/near-infrared light that they see. These detectors also provide microsecond time resolution, all with zero read noise and zero dark current photon counting that enable a mode of coronagraphy known as Dark Speckle, which originated in the mid-90?s and appears promising for suppressing focal-plane speckles as needed for companion detection. The overall project combines multiple exciting and novel technologies to attack one of the most pressing scientific problems in modern astronomy.
This project will have broad appeal to the public by the nature of the science, and will train undergraduate and graduate students as well as a post-doctoral fellow.
Funding for this project is being provided by NSF's Division of Astronomical Sciences through its Advanced Technologies and Instrumentation program.