From: JPL/California Institute of Technology
Published January 21, 2015 05:53 PM

The Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer sets its sights on habitable planets

The NASA-funded Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer, or LBTI, has completed its first study of dust in the "habitable zone" around a star, opening a new door to finding planets like Earth. Dust is a natural byproduct of the planet-formation process, but too much of it can block our view of planets.

The findings will help in the design of future space missions that have the goal of taking pictures of planets similar to Earth, called exo-Earths. 

"Kepler told us how common Earth-like planets are," said Phil Hinz, the principal investigator of the LBTI project at the University of Arizona, Tucson, referring to NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission, which has identified more than 4,000 planetary candidates around stars. "Now we want to find out just how dusty and obscured planetary environments are, and how difficult the planets will be to image."

The new instrument, based at the Large Binocular Telescope Observatory at the top of Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona, will obtain the best infrared images yet of dust permeating a star's habitable zone, the region around the star where water -- an essential ingredient for life as we know it -- could pool on a planet. Earth sits comfortably within our sun's habitable zone, hence its glistening surface of oceans.

Scientists want to take pictures of exo-Earths and break up their light into a rainbow of colors. This color information is displayed in plots, called spectra, which reveal chemical clues about whether a planet could sustain life. But dust -- which comes from colliding asteroids and evaporating comets -- can outshine the feeble light of a planet, making this task difficult.

"Imagine trying to view a firefly buzzing around a lighthouse in Canada from Los Angeles," said Denis Defrère of the University of Arizona, lead author of the new study that appears in the Jan. 14 issue of the Astrophysical Journal. "Now imagine that fog is in the way. The fog is like our stardust. We want to eliminate the stars with fog from our list of targets to study in the future."

Image shows the Large Binocular Telescope Interferometer (LBTI) instrument. Image Credit: Large Binocular Telescope Observatory

Read more at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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