Over the past 20 years, astronomers have discovered thousands of planets around other stars. Most of these "exoplanets" are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn. To detect smaller exoplanets similar to Earth or Venus - or "super Earths" with larger masses - requires very high-precision measurements. The Investigators will accomplish these measurements using four small telescopes, each less than 0.7 meters in diameter. Optical fibers will feed light from the telescopes into a spectrograph mounted in a temperature-controlled vacuum environment. Astronomers will use this instrument - named "MINERVA" - to detect Earth-like planets or super-Earths around nearby bright stars. These observations serve the national interest by increasing our identification of Earth-like exoplanets. The Principal Investigator will also use MINERVA for remote observing in astronomy classes, and through the Banneker Institute he created at Harvard to recruit under-represented minorities into STEM careers.
The Investigators will construct the first U.S. robotic facility dedicated to precise radial velocities and transit photometry. Named MINERVA, this facility will employ four 0.7-meter telescopes that simultaneously fiber-feed a small bench-mounted spectrometer. The spectrometer is expected to reach 0.8 m/s precision by combining the stability of an evacuated and temperature-controlled environment with fiber scrambling and the iodine-cell calibration method. Most of the equipment is already in place and robotically operational; only the spectrometer remains to be installed and commissioned. The Intellectual Merit of the project is the potential for discovering Earth-like planets around nearby, bright stars as well as super-Earths in the habitable zones of bright, Sun-like stars. The Broader Impacts of the project are substantial. They include a natural potential for educational and public-outreach activities. The telescopes will also be used for remote observing in astronomy courses at the partner institutions. Even more important, the PI has created the Banneker Institute at Harvard with the specific purpose of actively recruiting under-represented minorities to astronomy and STEM disciplines more generally.