The Lick Observatory Series: Scope 3 - The Automated Planet Finder
This is part 3 of the Lick Observator Series. We started with Lick's oldest telescope, the 36-inch Refractor telescope, and we'll end it with Lick's newest scope.
Introducing Lick's Automated Planet Finder (APF). This is a fully robotic 2.4 meter reflecting telescope which is entirely dedicated to searching for Earth-like planets and *life* on exoplanets.
APF aims to discover rocky planets, similar to Earth. It will attempt to do this using a spectrograph, which is an instrument that collects light and breaks it into a spectrum for analysis (a prism is a simple spectrograph). The important part about this particular spectrograph is that it is really sensitive and precise.
Astronomers will use the information from the spectrograph to figure out how much a planet is "tugging" on its star (we all know that stars have a gravitational pull on planets, but planets also have a little itty bitty tug on the star as well). By measuring this tug, they can determine how big the planet is. And because this spectrograph is more sensitive than most of its kind, it can measure really small tugs from small Earth-like planets.
APF also has the capability to search for laser transmissions coming from other planets. This is a unique strategy for alien hunting because most telescopes that search for intelligent life are radio telescopes that listen for radio transmissions. However, some experts believe that advance civilizations will likely communicate using lasers.
The work that APF is doing is cool, but *how* it's doing it is even cooler. This is a fully automated robotic telescope, which means it can make independent, intelligent decisions each night about which stars to look at and how to process the data. APF will target nearby stars (within 100 light years) and observe them every night for 6 months.
Here's hoping we find more Earth-like planets with the APF...and maybe even a few lasers coming from some of them!
Original Article (photos at Lick Observatory): http://www.cosmopolitan.com/career/interviews/a47080/get-that-life-emily-calandrelli-outer-space/