Pathways Towards Habitable Planets

ASP Conference Series, Vol. 430, 2010
Vincent Coudé du Foresto, Dawn M. Gelino, and Ignasi Ribas, eds.

The Search for Exoplanets in India

A. Chakraborty,1 B. G. Anadarao,1 and S. Mahadevan2
1 Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, India
2 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, USA

Abstract. The first dedicated program to search for exoplanets has been
planned and pursued at Physical Research Laboratory. The Program is called
PARAS which stands for PRL Advanced Radial-velocity All-sky Search. The
Search will be conducted by an efficient optical fiber-fed Echelle Spectrograph
attached to a 1.2 m telescope at the Mt. Abu Observatory in India. Using the
simultaneous ThAr calibration technique we plan to achieve RV precision of
3 - 5 m/s on a 10.5 magnitude star. The spectrograph will be commissioned by
early 2010 and the search is expected to begin by the end of 2010. The present
search will look for Neptune-size planets around G, K, and M type dwarfs.
Follow-up precision photometric observations of the prospective candidates will
be done using a wide field 50 cm telescope at the same Observatory. By 2015,
we have plans to have a new 2.5 m-class telescope at the same place and attach
the spectrograph to it, and achieve less than 1 m/s RV precision and look for
super Earths.

1. Introduction

Today, astronomy and astrophysics is primarily driven by two topics: a) cos-
mology and b) exoplanet sciences. While cosmology requires large telescope
apertures to do effective science, exoplanet science can be achieved using ground-
based small aperture telescopes. Thus, there is a clear scientific need for high-
resolution spectrographs with high efficiency and wavelength stability for pre-
cise radial velocity measurements (3 to 5 m/s) of stars for various astrophysical
studies like planet searches, stellar pulsations etc. Recent success of such spec-
trometers coupled with small telescopes (1-2 m) proves the case. In India there
are many 1 to 2 m class small telescopes which can be very effectively utilized
for exoplanet studies.
India is relative newcomer in the field of modern exoplanet research. In
2007 at Physical Research Laboratory, AC started a program called PARAS
(PRL Advanced Radial-velocity All-sky Search) for exoplanet searches using a
very stable fiber fed optical Echelle spectrograph. In the last few years we have
been designing and building the spectrograph (see Chakraborty et al. 2008).
By the end of 2010 we will also have a 50 cm telescope equipped with a 4k × 4k
front-illuminated CCD with an un-vignetting field of view of 37 arcmin by 37
arcmin for photometric studies of the prospective planet candidate stars.

414 Chakraborty, Anadarao, and Mahadevan

2. Near Term Goals Up to Five Years

The Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) owns a 1.2 m telescope at Gurushikar,
Mt. Abu which is about 230 km from the Institute at Ahmedabad. The obser-
vatory site is about 5800 feet above mean sea level and enjoys a median seeing
of 1.2 arcsecs with about 150 photometric nights and a total of 250 observing
nights in a year. The observatory remains closed during the monsoon from June
15th to the end of August and reopens by the second week of September. During
other times, the site is mostly very dry (less than 20% relative humidity; 1 to
2 mm of water vapor column density) and largely cloud free and photometric
sky. The observatory is self-sufficient in taking care of telescope mirror optics
and includes an aluminum coating facility for the main telescope mirror, a pro-
cess usually done once every 2 years. For exoplanet searches under the PARAS
project, we are guaranteed about 80 to 90 nights in a year.
Considering the fact that the Echelle spectrograph will be attached to a
1.2 m telescope, for the PARAS project we focused and put efforts on maxi-
mum possible efficiency. It is a white pupil design of 100 mm beam width and
consisting of a R = 3.75 Echelle, a single large prism of material PBM8Y pro-
ducing a cross dispersion of 60 mm between wavelengths 370 nm and 850 nm,
highly reflective off-axis parabolas and an F5 camera lens system. The spectro-
graph is expected to work at a resolution of R ≈ 70000 and will be kept inside
a low pressure vacuum chamber (≈ 0.01mbar) under a constant temperature
environment down to the precision of 10 to 20 milli-Kelvin at 27 C. It is ex-
pected to be up to 35% efficient from the fiber exit to the CCD detector, and
the overall spectrograph efficiency including the telescope and the fiber optics
on a good photometric night can be about 10%. Thus, the spectrograph will be
ideally suited for exoplanet searches using the ThAr simultaneous referencing
We are in the finishing stages of building the spectrograph. It will be
commissioned by early 2010 and science verifications are expected to start im-
mediately after that. By the end of 2010, the actual science program under the
PARAS project will start. SM is developing the RV data pipeline for PARAS.
The main science goals under the PARAS program are listed below:

1. To go down to 3 m/s precision on a 10th mag star and demonstrate the
instrument stability by achieving 1 m/s to 3 m/s on bright stars.
2. To search for planets with a precision of 3 m/s around at least 1000 G, K,
and M dwarfs that are brighter than 10.5 mag in V-band.
3. To evolve an observing strategy that will focus on longer period planets
(one to a few months periods). Depending upon the spectrograph stability
we achieve, we may look for even longer period planets (up to six months).
4. To look for planets around G, K Giants with lower precision of 10 m/s to
30 m/s. A good suite to confirm candidate exoplanets around giant stars
detected with ongoing surveys like that at the HET.

We are in the process of installing a 50 cm robotic telescope at the same site
on Mt. Abu. This telescope is expected to be operational by the end of 2010,
Search for Exoplanets in India 415

and the PARAS project is guaranteed its use about 50% of the time. We plan to
do precision differential photometry (≈ 0.002mag) in the R-band on stars with
prospective planet candidates. The 50 cm aperture telescope will be equipped
with the standard U, V, R, and I filters and the 4K CCD. A data pipe line for
photometric reduction is also under development.
Complementary photometric capability along with PARAS enables scien-
tific programs like the search for transits around long period exoplanets by re-
fining their transit windows with RV and then observing with the 50 cm tele-
scope, and with PARAS to detect the transit with photometry and the Rossiter
McLaughlin effect. PARAS red wavelengths are useful to test concepts of radial
velocity extraction in the presence of telluric features and are an essential test
for future NIR spectrographs.
PARAS will provide possible follow-up and confirmation of candidates from
ongoing multi-object RV surveys like SDSSIII MARVELS and long term mon-
itoring of bright stars to discover low mass exoplanets. Stellar astrophysics
studies will also be possible.

3. Long Term Goals Beyond Five Years

PARAS can be coupled to a future 2.5 m telescope with very little additional slit
losses. Our goal is to have a dedicated or at least 50% time on a 2.5 m robotic
telescope for PARAS and for RV searches by 2015.
The Mt. Abu site has reasonably dark sky, typically about 21 mag/arcsec2
in the V band on a moonless photometric night even though it suffers from some
light pollution from near-by towns. The sky brightness in the K-band is about
12.5 mag/arcsec2 . Thus the site is suitable for telescope apertures up to 3.5m
and especially suited for ground based near-IR observations up to 2.5 microns.
By the advantage of more photon flux we plan to achieve ∼1 m/s on stars
brighter than 12th mag and less than 1 m/s on bright stars. This will enable
us to look for super-Earths around G and K dwarfs and Earth-sized planets
around M dwarfs. Our observing strategy will focus on long-period planets and
will make efforts to look for planets in the habitable zones of stars.
Acknowledgments. The PARAS project is supported and financed by the
Physical Research Laboratory, which is a unit of the Department of Space, Govt.
of India. The authors would like to thank the staff and faculty at PRL whose
continuing valuable support has made this project possible. AC would like to
thank Prof. J.N. Goswami, the director PRL for his continuing support and en-
couragement for the PARAS project. AC would also like to thank Dr. Francesco
Pepe of the Geneva Observatory, Prof. Larry Ramsey of Penn State University,
and Mr. Subrahmunium of SAC, ISRO for many valuable discussions.


Chakraborty, A. et al. 2008, Proc. of SPIE, Ground-based and Airborne Instrumentation
for Astronomy II. eds. I. McLean & M. M. Casali, 7014, 70144G