Extrasolar Planet Hunt with Millimeter-wave Telescopes

12-meter telescope

Do nearby stars have planetary systems like our own? How do such systems evolve? How common are such systems? Proposed radio observatories operating at millimeter wavelengths could start answering these questions within the next 6-10 years, according to scientists at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Bryan Butler, Robert Brown, Richard Simon, Al Wootten and Darrel Emerson, all of NRAO, presented their findings today to the American Astronomical Society meeting in San Antonio, TX. Detecting planets circling other stars is a particularly difficult task, and only a few such planets have been discovered so far. In order to answer fundamental questions about planetary systems and their origin, scientists need to find and study many more extrasolar planets. According to the NRAO scientists, millimeter-wavelength observatories could provide valuable information about extrasolar planetary systems at all stages of their evolution.

“With instruments planned by 2005, we could detect planets the size of Jupiter around a solar-type star out to a distance of 100 light-years,” said Robert Brown, Associate Director of NRAO. “That means,” he added, “that we could survey approximately 2,000 stars of different types to learn if they have planets this size.”

Millimeter waves occupy the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum between radio microwaves and infrared waves. Telescopes for observing at millimeter wavelengths utilize advanced electronic equipment similar to that used in radio telescopes observing at longer wavelengths.

Millimeter-wave observatories offer a number of advantages in the search for extrasolar planets. Planned multi-antenna millimeter-wave telescopes can provide much higher resolving power, or ability to see fine detail, than current optical or infrared telescopes. Millimeter-wave observations would not be degraded by interference from the “zodiacal light” reflected by interplanetary dust, either in the extrasolar system or our own solar system. Another important advantage is that, at millimeter wavelengths, the star’s brightness poses less of a problem for observers because, while it is still brighter than a planet, the difference in brightness between the two is far less. Because of the physical nature of the objects themselves, protoplanets in different stages of formation could readily be detected by advanced millimeter-wave observatories.

The observatories that could provide these advantages are the Millimeter Array (MMA), a proposed 40-antenna millimeter-wave telescope that could be operational by 2005, and an upgraded version of the existing Very Large Array (VLA), a 27-antenna radio telescope in New Mexico.

The MMA is a radio telescope designed to operate at wavelengths from 11.5 millimeters down to 0.5 millimeters, or frequencies from 26 to 650 GHz. It will use 40 precision antennas, each 8 meters in diameter, all operating in concert to produce extremely high- resolution images. As is done with the existing VLA and VLBA radio telescopes, the signals from all the MMA antennas will be processed in a special-purpose computer called a correlator. The processing of the signals corrects for atmospheric propagation effects and for the fact that the “synthesized telescope” is in fact made up of individual antennas.

Planning for the MMA began as early as 1983, and a number of scientific workshops have allowed U.S. researchers to make known their needs for a millimeter-wave observatory to serve a wide variety of specialties. The National Science Foundation (NSF) provided initial design funding to NRAO in 1995 for MMA studies. Currently, MMA efforts are centered on selecting an appropriate site, which must be very high, dry and flat. A site at 16,500 feet elevation in northern Chile is now being tested. Hawaii’s Mauna Kea is also under consideration. If funding is approved for the MMA, the instrument could be in operation by the year 2005. The MMA is expected to be an international instrument, with funding from both U.S. and foreign sources.

The MMA will be capable of imaging planetary systems in the earliest stages of their formation. The MMA will be able to detect many more young, low-mass stellar systems and to examine them to determine if they have the disks from which planetary systems are formed. In addition, the MMA could be used to examine the properties of these disks in detail. The properties that could be examined include size, temperature, dust density and chemistry.

A number of enhancements have been proposed to the MMA, including longer baselines for greater resolution, the ability to observe at higher frequencies, and greater signal bandwidth. This enhanced MMA would have the sensitivity to directly detect very young giant planets in the nearest star-forming regions, the resolving power to distinguish them from their central stars, and the ability to detect giant planets by measuring their gravitational effect upon their parent stars and thus determine their masses.

The VLA, dedicated in 1980, also could contribute to the search for extrasolar planets if proposed upgrades are implemented. Though originally designed to operate at a highest frequency of 24 GHz, the VLA recently has been equipped with receivers for 40-50 GHz. Funding for receivers in this range, at a wavelength of 7 millimeters, was provided in 1993 by the government of Mexico. The VLA now has 13 of its 27 antennas equipped with these 40-50 GHz receivers. Plans for upgrading the VLA include equipping all remaining antennas with such receivers, improving its electronics, and improving its resolution by adding antennas at extended distances.

The upgraded VLA will be able to study the inner parts of the dust disks surrounding young stars — disks that are believed to be the precursors to planetary systems. The inner parts of such disks are obscured at shorter wavelengths. The enhanced VLA will be able to reveal processes occurring in these disks at scales comparable to the size of our own Solar System.

“The reason we hope to search for extrasolar planets with millimeter-wave telescopes is that we can build on the experience U.S. astronomers have gained with both millimeter observing and aperture-synthesis telescopes such as the VLA over the past two or three decades,” said Brown. He added, “We look forward to applying this expertise to the challenge of answering one of mankind’s oldest questions.”

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation, operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.

Dave Finley
(505) 835-7302

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