Searching for Earth-like Exoplanets in the Northern Skies

Artemis, the first ground-based telescope of the SPECULOOS (Search for habitable Planets EClipsing ULtra-cOOl Stars) Northern Observatory, has completed installation and is officially hunting for Earth-like exoplanets in the Northern Hemisphere.

Partially funded by the Heising-Simons Foundation through a grant to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (MIT-EAPS), Artemis is located on the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife, about 150 miles off the coast of Morocco. Situated 8,000 feet above sea level, the site is known to be the second-best location for infrared and optical astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere, after the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

Artemis searches the Northern Hemisphere sky for exoplanets. Photo: D. Padron.

As part of its grantmaking in astronomy and cosmology, the Foundation’s Science program supports innovative technologies that enhance and accelerate the search for exoplanets. For centuries, the notion of life beyond our solar system was pure speculation. However, with the advancement of technology, that possibility is on the verge of becoming a testable scientific hypothesis. Since the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995 (named 51 Pegasi b), more than 3,500 exoplanets have been detected, and more are being found at an increasing rate.

“The goal of the Artemis telescope is to look at the roughly 800 nearest ultra-cool dwarf stars located in the northern skies (and a sliver of the southern skies) to find Earth-sized planets that may have a temperate climate and be amenable for further in-depth characterization with the next generation of observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Extremely Large Telescopes,” Dr. Julien de Wit explained in an interview with MIT News. “These will be able to tell us more about their atmosphere, climate, and what molecules might be present on them.”

Dr. Julien de Wit, assistant professor at MIT-EAPS, is Artemis’ principal investigator and the project lead for SPECULOOS’ expansion into the Northern Hemisphere. Previously, Dr. de Wit worked with the TRAPPIST team to discover the TRAPPIST-1 system, a system that contains three temperate Earth-sized planets orbiting an ultracool dwarf star. The successful work of the TRAPPIST project helped spawn the SPECULOOS collaboration. Dr. de Wit will apply his extensive experience in developing innovative observing, modeling, and analyzing techniques to optimize Artemis’ science output.

The interior of the Artemis telescope, which is part of the SPECULOOS Northern Observatory. Photo: D. Padron.

Artemis joins a network of 1-meter-class robotic telescopes as part of the SPECULOOS consortium, which is led by Michael Gillon at the University of Liège in Belgium. Together, these SPECULOOS telescopes will create a powerful network to search for terrestrial planets circling very faint, nearby stars, also known as ultra-cool dwarfs.

Artemis is the first telescope of the SPECULOOS Northern Observatory. Photo: tau-tec GmbH / Michael Ruder

SPECULOOS is a collaboration with MIT-EAPS and several other international institutions and supporters., The Foundation is grateful for its partnership with MIT-EAPS and with Dr. de Witt, who has demonstrated impressive scientific leadership to launch this endeavor.

Video: D. Padrón

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