Cullen Blake Helps to Build Next-generation Planet Finder

Cullen Blake, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, is part of a team selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Astrophysics Division to build a $10 million, cutting-edge instrument to detect planets orbiting stars outside our solar system.

The team was selected in a national competition. When completed in 2019, the instrument will be the centerpiece of a partnership between NASA and the National Science Foundation called the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program, or NN-EXPLORE.

“The goal of this project is to build an instrument capable of detecting a planet like Earth orbiting a star like the sun,” says Blake.

The work will guide NASA’s future efforts toward finding evidence of life outside our solar system.

The instrument, named NEID, will be built during the next three years and then installed on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. NEID is derived from the word meaning “to discover or visualize” in the native language of the Tohono O’odham, a Native American people upon whose land Kitt Peak is located. NEID also is short for “NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy.”

NEID will detect planets by the tiny gravitational tug they exert on their stars, a phenomenon known as “the wobble effect.”

“When a planet goes around a star, the star physically moves a little bit and that movement is what we’re detecting,” Blake says. “People have been doing this for a long time, but to find a planet like Earth we need to improve the precision of the current techniques about ten-fold.”

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