Astronomers from Vanderbilt University are preparing the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) to go online, which will become only the second dedicated planet-finder in the southern hemisphere.
The KELT project is an effort to detect transiting planets around bright stars; as a planet passes in front of a parent star it blocks a small percentage of that sunlight. KELT is designed to detect these subtle fluctuations in nearby stars similar to the Sun. The project consists of two telescopes: KELT-North in Arizona at Winer Observatory which is operated by Ohio State University, and KELT-South, which is operated by Vanderbilt University and will be deployed to the South African Astronomical Observatory later this summer. The KELT telescopes are about the same size as some amateur telescopes and use surprisingly modest optics alongside extremely high quality imaging systems. They cost around £25,000 to construct.
The KELT-north telescope in Arizona. Both KELT telescopes can be operated remotely by all collaborating universities. Image: Vanderbilt University.
Unlike large telescopes that focus in on small parts of the sky in order to produce extremely high resolution images, KELT scans large areas of the sky that contain thousands of stars. In order to see variations in brightness that betray the presence of an exoplanet, it must frequently revisit each area many times every night, collecting up to 10 gigabytes of data in every observing session. This prodigious amount of data will be processed by supercomputers at Vanderbilt’s Advanced Computing Centre for Research and Education, in order to pick out transiting events from other effects.
According to Associate Professor of Astronomy Keivan Stassun, KELT is an example of a new program called the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data-Intensive Astrophysics (VIDA). "Astronomy is now entering a period when the way astronomers do their work is fundamentally changing," he says. "The traditional model has been that of an individual astronomer, or a small team of astronomers, going to a telescope and pointing it at a star or a galaxy, collecting data, analysing the data and publishing the results. But, with the advent of high-performance computers, robotic telescopes and digital detectors that are able to see large swaths of the sky at once, the quantities of data that we can collect are rapidly increasing so we need new ways of analysing them in real time."
The purpose of VIDA is to give Vanderbilt astronomers the resources they need to become leaders in this new way of conducting astronomical research. But they won’t be the only ones to benefit, – the partnership with the University of Cape Town will also provide exchange opportunities for students at the two universities, and will enhance the scientific capacity among South Africans and African-Americans, says a media representative from the University of Cape Town.
KELT-south will begin its search for extrasolar planets later next month.