New Super-Earth-Hunting Telescope Array Opens Its Eyes To The Sky

Introducing the Next-Generation Transit Survey, the sharpest exoplanet-seeking scope on Earth

Oh, snap. A powerful new array of telescopes took its first pictures, the European Southern Observatory announced today. “First light” photos aren’t always scientifically interesting, but in the years to come, the Next-Generation Transit Survey will take images of planets orbiting other suns, seeking worlds that look a bit like Earth.

The survey, which is based in the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, will look for moments when distant stars dim temporarily. Periodic dimming in stars is a sign that there’s a planet there that has transited, or passed, between the star and Earth. (You might remember NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope also looks for transits.) Bigger planets cause more obvious dimming, but for this survey, astronomers are most interested in planets closer in size to Earth than easier-to-spot gas giants such as Jupiter. Thus, the Next-Generation Transit Survey will seek “super-Earths” about two times to eight times the size of humanity’s home world. The survey array measures the brightness of stars more accurately than any other ground-based telescope.

In the time-lapse photo above, you can see the Next-Generation Transit Survey with its instruments on for testing underneath a star-filled sky. The big streak of light in the sky is the moon. In the hills in the distance, you can see two other telescopes: the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy on the left, and the Very Large Telescope on the right.

Inside the Survey

This illustration shows the 12-telescope array inside the Next-Generation Transit Survey.

The Next-Generation Transit Survey will scan for super-Earths automatically, running a computer program that doesn’t require a person to supervise. If it detects interesting transits, astronomers will pass on the information to larger telescopes, such as the Very Large Telescope, which can try to ascertain the planets’ composition.

European Southern Observatory

The Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) is located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. This project will search for transiting exoplanets — planets that pass in front of their parent star and hence produce a slight dimming of the star’s light that can be detected by sensitive instruments. The telescopes will focus on discovering Neptune-sized and smaller planets, with diameters between two and eight times that of Earth.This night time long-exposure view shows the telescopes during testing. The very brilliant Moon appears in the centre of the picture and the VISTA (right) and VLT (left) domes can also be seen on the horizon.