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Hunting Planets

August 26, 2015

MICHAEL ENDL: The goal is that, inside the dome, the temperature is at the same level as the expected nighttime temperature — that’s why it’s already cooled down a little bit. But, of course, when we open up everything will take some time to settle down.

Michael Endl is getting ready to hunt for planets. The McDonald Observatory astronomer is standing below the Harlan J. Smith Telescope. Air conditioners whirr around him, keeping the telescope and its 107-inch primary mirror cool, which keeps its view of the night sky sharp and clear.

Over the next few hours, Endl will use the telescope to examine 30 or 40 stars — targets that he and colleagues have been watching for years. They’re looking for giant planets in distant orbits around the stars — planets similar to Jupiter in our own solar system.

But getting ready to look at those stars takes some time. The instrument that Endl is using — a spectrograph, which breaks starlight into its individual wavelengths or colors — has to be properly calibrated, for example. Endl has to make sure the telescope’s tracking software is working. And from the control room, he has to keep an eye on some thunderstorms moving in from the southwest.

ENDL: And now we have just opened up the dome. The weather is actually fine now. Now we are basically waiting for it to get dark enough so that we can point the telescope to one of the planet-search targets and take data — take a spectrum, as we call it.

We’ll have more about the planet search tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2015

Today's program was made possible in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

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