Once they were satisfied with the instrument’s performance, then came the painstaking—and terrifying—work to transport it from Chicago to Hawaii. “Spending eight years on this instrument and then watching from the loading dock as the truck drives away with it and you won’t see it until two weeks later at the top of a mountain across an ocean—it’s pretty nerve-wracking,” Seifahrt said.
But the crates with the equipment made it safely to Hawaii, where Bean, Seifahrt, and postdocs Julian Stürmer and David Kasper got their LEGO set assembled. On September 23, MAROON-X took its official first-light readings.
The instrument will work in concert with NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to get a full picture of candidate exoplanets. TESS looks for the dimming of the light as a planet crosses in front of a star, so scientists can find how big it is. By combining that with MAROON-X’s mass data, you can calculate an exoplanet’s density—which tells you if you’re looking at a rocky planet, like Earth, or a gaseous one, like Jupiter.
MAROON-X also will be able to detect signatures from the atmosphere of the planet, such as its composition and thickness.
“Long-term, we hope to be able to look for biosignatures—things that would only exist if life put them there,” Bean said. “For example, in Earth’s atmosphere, we only have oxygen because it was put there by plants. It’s a puzzle with a lot of different pieces.”
As they gather new data, Bean expects to work with UChicago colleagues including planetary composition experts Leslie Rogers, Dorian Abbott and Edwin Kite, and crack exoplanet hunter Daniel Fabrycky, to turn the readings into predictions about the faraway exoplanets. Soon, too, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will launch as the successor to Hubble, bringing even more imaging capabilities to bear on the question.
In addition to Bean, Seifahrt, Stürmer, and Kasper, multiple generations of UChicago undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers worked on MAROON-X. “It’s really been a labor of love for my team,” Bean said, “and now it’s finally real. It’s a very exciting time.”
Seifahrt agreed: “Pulling this off with such a small team and a limited budget is really an achievement. Looking back, it was kind of an insane thing to do—but we think it’s really going to be a trailblazing instrument.”
Funding: The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Gemini Observatory, and the University of Chicago