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The WYIN telescope

Penn State led NEID team receives NASA Group Achievement Award

2 June 2021

The NEID instrument team, led by Penn State Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics Suvrath Mahadevan, was recognized by NASA with the Group Achievement Award, which is presented to groups who have distinguished themselves through outstanding contributions to NASA’s mission. The team is being recognized for “the development and delivery of the state-of-the-art NEID radial velocity spectrograph and port adapter to the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope on Kitt Peak.”

“Since receiving this recognition from NASA, the NEID instrument has been acquiring scientific observations for many groups during its commissioning phase and is now on-track for its final readiness review with NASA today,” said Suvrath Mahadevan. “This award, and NEID itself, is only made possible by a fantastic team of students, postdoctoral researchers, staff, and faculty who have come together to build and deploy a state-of-the art machine to discover new worlds.”

The exoplanet-hunting NEID instrument, designed and built at Penn State, is an extreme precision radial velocity spectrograph—an instrument that can detect tiny changes in the wavelength of light from a star—installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Southern Arizona. It made its first observations collecting starlight in January, 2020, and resumed operation in fall 2020 after a covid19 related shutdown. The instrument’s name is derived from the word meaning “to discover/visualize” in the native language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land Kitt Peak National Observatory is located.

The team plans to use this NSF-NASA funded instrument to measure the motion of nearby stars with extreme precision—roughly three times better than the previous generation of state-of-the-art instruments—allowing them to detect, determine the mass of (‘weigh’), and characterize exoplanets as small as Earth.
The NEID spectrograph detects exoplanets by measuring the subtle effect these planets have on their parent stars. Planets tug gravitationally on the stars they orbit, producing a small “wobble”—a periodic shift in the velocity of the star. This happens in our own solar system—Jupiter causes the Sun to wobble at roughly 13 meters/second (about 43 feet/second: only a bit faster than record-breaking sprinter Usain Bolt!), whereas the Earth causes a movement with a velocity of less than 0.1 meters/second (less than 4 inches/second). The amplitude of the wobble is proportional to an orbiting planet’s mass, meaning NEID measurements can be used to determine the masses of exoplanets. Most current instruments can measure velocities as low as 1 meter/second (just over 3 feet per second: a slow walking pace), but NEID was built to detect even lower velocities—potentially uncovering Earth-mass exoplanets.

Exoplanets discovered with NEID will be potential targets for follow-up observations with upcoming facilities like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to detect and characterize the atmospheres of exoplanets. This makes NEID an important part of the ongoing search for other Earths and brings scientists one step closer to this goal.