Suvrath Mahadevan, a professor of astrophysics, space science and nuclear physics has been assigned by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to lead its team that will build a new, cutting-edge instrument that will detect planets outside the solar system. Prof. Suvrath Mahadevan at Penn State, is NASA’s “Next-Gen Planet Hunter.”
Mahadevan, a 37-year-old IIT Bombay graduate, is engaged with his team of 15-plus specialists, including his graduate student Arpita Roy, to build the highly precise instrument, to detect “exoplanets” as they are called, and expects to complete it by Spring of 2019, when it will be installed on the powerful telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, he told News India Times.
Mahadevan’s instrument, titled NEID (pronounced “nee-id”), is derived from a word meaning “to discover/visualize” in the native language of the Tohono O’odham, on whose land Kitt Peak National Observatory is located. It is also short for NN-EXPLORE – Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler Spectroscopy.
The NEID will measure the tiny back-and-forth wobble of a star caused by the gravitational tug of a planet in orbit around it. The wobble tells scientists there is a planet orbiting the star, and the size of the wobble indicates how massive the planet is. NEID was one of two concepts for an extreme precision Doppler spectrometer that were selected for a detailed six-month study by NASA in June 2015. Mahadevan’s team won out.
“These instruments have a very hard job,” said Mahadevan. “Everything matters – from what happens in the earth’s atmosphere to who is walking around the instrument, could affect the result.” The instrument is built in vacuum chambers where temperatures are kept stable to one-thousandths of one degree. “If the room temperature changes by 1 percent, the instruments feels only one-thousandths of the change,” Mahadevan explained.
The instrument will be the centerpiece of a new partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) called the NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research program, or NN-EXPLORE.
According to NASA, using NEID as a facility observatory instrument, astronomers will be able to search out and study new planets and planetary systems, as well as follow-up the discoveries of NASA’s planet-hunting missions Kepler/K2 and the in-development Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). NEID will also help identify promising targets for future observations with the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.
Born in Ahmedabad, Mahadevan is the son of Malayalee parents, industrial engineer N.S. Mahadevan, and English teacher Vijaya Mahadevan. He credits some of his achievements to the “very solid and thorough” grounding at IIT Bombay, where he graduated in engineering and physics. “It was very, very valuable to me,” Mahadevan said, “An IIT education really helps you think out things, find innovative ways to solve problems and a solid core for attacking challenges.”
Mahadevan came to the U.S. in 2000. After starting out as a student at Penn State, he moved to the University of Florida to complete his studies. He returned in 2009 to join the Penn State faculty. He says India’s work in space science is impressive.
He collaborates with India’s Physical Research Lab in Ahmedabad and has collaborated with it to build an instrument dedicated to finding planets. India is already doing a lot on space research, he says, chalking up missions to the moon, a planned mission to Mars, as well as work on exoplanets which has been going on for several years, he said.
The search for “exoplanets” he says, attracts people from all backgrounds. “People flock to this because they are passionate about the subject, regardless of their ethnicity or origin,” he said, adding, “It belongs to all humanity.”