A black box locked away in solitude beneath the world’s driest desert in northern Chile could be vital in the search for alien life.
The box is the most precise scientific instrument of its kind ever built; more than 10 times stronger than the most powerful spectrograph in operation today.
Nicknamed “Espresso”, it will be connected to a facility of four telescopes so massive they are collectively referred to simply as the Very Large Telescope (VLT), where it will scan the skies for planets beyond our solar system.
In silence, buried beneath the facility on the Paranal mountain in the Atamaca desert, the black box will analyse the wobble in distant stars to see if that wobble was caused by an Earth-like planet orbiting it.
Espresso, which stands for Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, will analyse the light from distant stars that the VLT detects.
Analysing this light, it will discover the quality of their atmosphere and whether those atmospheres have oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide, as well as if they contain water; the essential ingredients for life.
“Espresso will be available on all four telescopes at once, which is something that had never been done before. That means the likelihood of finding planets similar to Earth in mass and size, or the conditions for life, are greater,” according to Italian astronomer Gaspare Lo Curto.
The Atamaca desert is so dry that its skies are almost always cloudless – which is why the European Southern Observatory established its telescopes there.
The location is so well-suited to star gazing that it is expected by 2020 that the Atacama will house around 70% of the entire planet’s astronomy infrastructure.
Espresso will be 10 times more precise than the most precise instrument in the world currently engaging in a similar search, the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) instrument.
HARPS was only able to measure planets far larger than Earth, which are very unlikely to host life.
Espresso “will help us answer one of the greatest questions we have in astronomy, which is analysing and understanding planets outside our solar system,” Chilean astronomer Rodrigo Herrera Camus said.
The technology that Espresso is based on is so delicate it needs to be stored at an extremely cold temperature.
It will live inside a giant metal cylinder kept on average at -150 C, locked in an underground bunker beneath the VLT, away from any human visitors for at least a decade.