The university’s new laser system could help astronomers hunt for exoplanets

Scientists at the university have developed a system that could help astronomers find Earth-like planets, and it’s powered by a laser similar to those sold in stores for a few pounds.

Researchers from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh have produced a green laser-powered device similar to laser pointers sold for under £ 5.

But it emits light at a billion pulses per second, helping to produce what is known as a frequency comb.

Professor Derryck Reid, head of the ultrafast optics group at Heriot-Watt University, said the laser has enormous potential for allowing astronomers to detect small Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars.

According to the university, the laser reduces the cost, complexity and power consumption of typical ultrafast lasers by about a factor of 10.

Details of the breakthrough were reported in Optics Express magazine.

Professor Reid believes it could help astronomers search for exoplanets – planets that revolve around stars outside of Earth’s solar system.

Using space telescopes, astronomers have already identified thousands of stars that may have exoplanets, but each of these must be confirmed by ground-based telescopes that look for tiny fluctuations in the color of the star’s light that are the signatures of an orbiting planet.

“These tiny shifts in wavelength confirm the presence of a planet in orbit and provide its mass and orbital period.

“Our new laser is a smaller and simpler version of the one we installed on the 10-meter Large Telescope in Southern Africa in 2016.

“The laser produces light consisting of thousands of regularly spaced optical frequencies, known as a frequency comb. Just as a ruler is used to accurately measure distances, a frequency comb is a “wavelength ruler”, which allows astronomers to measure exact wavelength differences.

“Since observations of exoplanets can take years of observation time, astronomers have suggested that we have many dedicated telescopes pointing at candidate stars and our laser could become a central module in such systems.”

Heriot-Watt doctoral student Hanna Ostapenko came up with the design for the new system.

He said: “The peculiarity of this laser is that we have shown that we can power it from a simple laser diode, about the same power consumption as an iPhone.

“Unlike many previous ultrafast lasers, ours contains very few components and produces ultrafast pulses as soon as it is turned on.”

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