Extrasolar planets: Italy to lead the construction of the SHARK instruments on the LBT
The Large Binocular Telescope-LBT, one of the world’s largest and most advanced optical telescopes, located in Arizona, will soon become a formidable hunter of extrasolar planets thanks to two new SHARK optical instruments that will be built by an international consortium led by Italy through the National Institute for Astrophysics-INAF.
SHARK – an acronym for System for coronagraphy with High order Adaptive optics from R to K band – consists of a pair of instruments that will work in visible light (SHARK-VIS) and in the near infrared (SHARK-NIR), with the possibility of working in parallel, thus making the LBT the world’s first telescope capable of observing exoplanets simultaneously over such a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum.
The SHARK instruments will be operational by the end of 2019 and will allow planetary systems to be observed with very high angular resolution and contrast, also thanks to the use of coronagraphy, the technique that blocks out the light coming from the central star and improves the observation of the surrounding regions where the planets are hidden. In addition, the SHARK instruments will take full advantage of the adaptive optics system already mounted on the LBT, which was also designed and developed by INAF.
“With this formidable combination, we will finally be able to give a ‘face’ to many exoplanets orbiting stars in our galactic neighbourhood and to better characterize their properties, also thanks to the images in visible light taken for the first time in the northern hemisphere”, explained Fernando Pedichini, researcher at INAF in Rome and principal investigator of SHARK-VIS.
The new instruments will also allow researchers to study asteroids and minor bodies of the solar system or light sources located outside the Milky Way. “SHARK-NIR, taking advantage of the outstanding sensitivity of the LBT adaptive optics system, and used in parallel with SHARK-VIS and the LBTI LMIRCAM, will allow us to carry out scientific research in fields other than that of the search for planets”, added Jacopo Farinato, astronomer at INAF in Padua and principal investigator of SHARK-NIR.
The Italian institutes involved in the construction of SHARK are the INAF Observatories of Padua and Rome, responsible for the two channels, together with the Observatories of Arcetri, Milan and Trieste and the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Padua. In addition, the LBT telescope has been designed and built entirely in Italy that, through INAF, contributes 25% of the project implementation costs and management costs.