Join Donate

Exoplanets Laser

A cutting-edge calibration system for telescope spectrographs

Depending on the resolution of your screen, the period at the end of this sentence is probably just a couple pixels wide. Imagine taking one of those pixels and dividing it into a thousand strips. Zoom in on a handful of those strips. You're now looking at the distance a star's light spectrum shifts in one year, when that star is tugged on by an Earth-like exoplanet.

Planets tug on their stars as they orbit, giving the star a slight wobble. Astronomers can detect these wobbles over time with a telescope spectrograph, which splits starlight into its component wavelengths. An exoplanet with the same mass as Earth might only wobble its star by 10 centimeters per second, resulting in the thousandths-of-a-pixel shifts described above.

To detect these tiny shifts, new, high-resolution spectrographs are needed that can observe stars for years at a time. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Yale University Exoplanet Group is building EXPRES, the Extreme Precision Spectrograph. EXPRES will be installed on the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory's Happy Jack site, located southeast of Flagstaff, Arizona. Under the direction of Dr. Debra Fischer, the new instrument will support Yale's 100 Earths project, which aims to find and characterize 100 Earth-like exoplanets. 

How can Fischer's team be sure that any shifts EXPRES detects are real, and not just variations in the way starlight is recorded at the observatory? They need an ultra-reliable calibration system. The Planetary Society is pitching in to help fund the system, by raising $65,000 for a piece of equipment we call Exoplanets Laser. Yale postdoc Tyler McCracken is leading the effort to build and test the calibration system, which will eventually include Exoplanets Laser.

The Discovery Channel Telescope

Yale University Exoplanet Group

The Discovery Channel Telescope
Tyler McCracken, a postdoctoral associate with the Yale University Exoplanet Group, poses in front of the 4.3-meter Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory's Happy Jack site, southeast of Flagstaff, Ariz. The Yale team will use the telescope as part of their 100 Earths project, which will seek out 100 Earth-like planets around other stars.

EXPRES is calibrated using a frequency comb. A frequency comb is an artificially generated light spectrum that is imaged at the telescope alongside a star spectrum. The idea is for these artificial spectra to remain identical over years of observations. Computer algorithms can then use the artificial spectra as a sort-of ruler to measure tiny, long-term shifts in star spectra.

The frequency comb is generated using a Fabry–Pérot interferometer, named after the two physicists who invented it. For brevity, let's refer to it here as the FPI. The FPI has two, flat, parallel pieces of semi-transparent glass. The sides of the glass that face each other are mirrored. 

White light is sent into the FPI. The light passes through first piece of glass, bounces back and forth between the mirrors, and passes through the second piece of glass. All of this bouncing back and forth takes the original band of solid white light and turns it into a series of repeating dots. These dots correspond to equally spaced frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum—our frequency comb.

White light frequency comb

Yale Exoplanet Group

White light frequency comb
This frequency comb was generated by sending white light through a Fabry–Pérot interferometer.

But there's a problem here. What if our FPI changes over time, and the frequency comb shifts? If that happened, our carefully measured star spectrum would have a faulty ruler, making it impossible to detect thousandths-of-a-pixel shifts.

The solution? We need one of the dots in our frequency comb to be super-precise, generated by something other than the FPI's white light. Then, we can center the FPI on this "known dot," which will make all the other dots in our frequency comb fall into place each and every time.

When scientists need to measure something with extreme precision, they often turn to atoms. Take, for instance, atomic clocks. When you bombard an atom with just the right wavelength of energy, its electrons absorb the energy and jump from their ground state orbits to higher, excited state orbits. Electrons don't like to live in their excited states for long, so they eventually jump back to their ground states, releasing the energy they absorbed. The wavelengths of energy that make different atoms maximize this absorb-and-release process are predictably constant—so constant that we define one second as the time it takes for a cesium atom to absorb or release 9,192,631,770 electromagnetic waves.

Similarly, we can use this electron-jumping regularity to tell us where to place the known dot in our FPI frequency comb. This is where Exoplanets Laser comes in. Exoplanets Laser is a high-end, professional-grade laser system built by TOPICA Photonics. It can be tuned to emit light at very specific wavelengths between 645 and 655 nanometers. Light from the laser is sent through a little container of iodine gas. Around the 650-nanometer mark, there are hundreds of wavelengths that cause the iodine atoms’ electrons to jump from their ground states to excited states. Using a wavemeter and a technique called Doppler-free spectroscopy, the laser is tuned to emit light at one of these very specific wavelengths.

The EXPRES spectrograph splits starlight into a range of wavelengths from blue to red. Our Exoplanets Laser tuned to a specific wavelength near 650 nanometers corresponds to red light—right in the range of light EXPRES sees—so this is where we'll place the known dot that anchors our frequency comb. Once the laser is properly tuned, its light is sent through the FPI.

Unlike the broad-wavelength white light the FPI uses to generate the rows of dots for our frequency comb, the light from Exoplanets Laser is already tuned to a narrow, super-precise wavelength. As a result, the laser light coming through the FPI creates a single, constant dot that won't shift, since we don't expect the fundamental nature of atoms to change anytime soon. Once we have this known dot, the FPI's white light is turned on, et voilà!  We have a perfectly aligned calibration spectrum centered on our known dot—accurate to an almost unfathomable scale. Every night, the laser will be tuned to the same, ultra-precise wavelength, giving us a precise calibration system that won't change over time.

Exoplanets Laser prototype

Yale University Exoplanets Group

Exoplanets Laser prototype
A prototype of the Exoplanets Laser system sits in a laboratory at Yale University.

The system we've just described is said to be "single-locked." The Exoplanets Laser is locked to the jumping iodine electrons, and the FPI frequency comb is locked to the Exoplanets Laser. In early 2015, this single-locked system will be tested using the CHIRON spectrometer (another Yale Exoplanets Group project) on the 1.5-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in northern Chile. 

After that, Fischer and McCracken plan to install the calibration system on EXPRES at the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona. But before they do that, they'll refine the system further. The single-locked system still has a few single points of failure. What if the spectrometer reads the excited iodine electrons incorrectly? What if the Exoplanets Laser tells us it's locked to the iodine wavelength when it really isn't? 

To remove these uncertainties, the final calibration system will use three, separate single-locked systems. The entire process described above will be duplicated three times: three Exoplanets Lasers, three iodine cells, three spectroscopes, three FPIs, and three frequency combs. We call the result a "triple-locked" system. Remember, 650 nanometers is just one of the frequencies at which iodine electrons get excited. The additional two Exoplanets Lasers will be tuned to prominent iodine wavelengths on opposite sides of the 650 mark. This will create three known dots with three overlapping frequency combs. If one of the lasers or spectrometers acts up, the frequency combs will fall out of sync with one another, and the astronomers watching for star wobbles will know their spectra ruler has a problem.

There's also a more practical reason for using a triple-locked system: EXPRES can record accurate starlight data with just two frequency combs. Since observatories tend to be in remote areas (the Discovery Channel Telescope sits on a 7,500-foot mountain peak, 40 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona), it can take days or even weeks to fix faulty equipment. With a triple-locked system, the system can continue to operate with two calibration units while the third awaits repairs.

Yale's triple-locked calibration system will be the first of its kind. And when it is installed on EXPRES, the Discovery Channel Telescope will become one of the most precise exoplanet-hunting instruments in the entire world. At The Planetary Society, we're excited to contribute to such cutting-edge research. We hope you'll consider helping us raise the $65,000 needed to fund Exoplanets Laser.

Support our exoplanets research:

Donate to the Exoplanets Laser project today!

Exoplanets Laser on Planetary Radio

Yale’s Debra Fischer and the Ever More Precise Search for New Worlds

October 14, 2014 • 28:50

It’s terribly hard to find exoplanets that look like our homeworld. The search requires development of astoundingly powerful and precise instruments. That’s the job Debra Fischer and her team have taken on.

Exoplanets Laser Blog Posts

Remembering Charles Townes

Mat Kaplan • January 31, 2015 • 2

Mat Kaplan honors the memory of a scientific pioneer.

A Look Back at an Amazing Year

Jennifer Vaughn • December 31, 2014

As excited as we are to jump into 2015, I want to take time to reflect on the year coming to a close and applaud all that we’ve accomplished working together.

Using Lasers to Lock Down Exoplanet Hunting

Bruce Betts • September 26, 2014

The Planetary Society is launching a new collaboration with Yale exoplanet hunter Debra Fischer and her team, the Exoplanets Laser project. We will support the purchase of an advanced, ultra stable laser to be used in a complex system they are designing to push radial velocity exoplanet hunting to a whole whole new level.

astronaut on Phobos
Let's Change the World

Become a member of The Planetary Society and together we will create the future of space exploration.

Join Today


Our Advocacy Program provides each Society member a voice in the process. Funding is crucial.


You are here: