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Project Searches For Planets Around Coolest Stars

January 13, 2009

A team of University of Hertfordshire astronomers led by Dr David Pinfield of the Centre for Astrophysics Research is leading a major new European collaboration to search for and study planets around other stars (extra-solar planets).

Funded with £2.75 million from the European Commission, this research and technology network will focus on the search for rocky planets around cool stars and the development of future space-based technology to study extra-solar planets. Cool stars are much fainter than the Sun and are thus challenging to study, but they play a major role in astrophysics; they are the most common type of star in our Galaxy.

“This fast moving field is at the forefront of modern astrophysics, and is moving towards a goal of discovering terrestrial planets like the Earth around stars other than the Sun,” said Dr Pinfield. “Learning about the diverse range of planetary systems that exist around other stars allows us to better understand our own place in the universe, and will reveal the extent of possible habitats for life elsewhere.”

The project is built on the team’s international collaboration with leading research institutes in the UK (UH and Cambridge), Spain (Canary Islands and Madrid), Germany (Munich) and Ukraine (Kiev), and the space engineering company Astrium (based in Stevenage).

Over its four year life-time (Dec 2008 ““ Nov 2012) the project will employ fifteen young doctoral and postdoctoral researchers to carry out new research, work with industry on technology development, and receive training through a range of science and technology activities.

The network will specifically pursue extra-solar planets that transit (pass in-front of their host star during their orbit) – currently an extremely active area of astronomy. For cool stars this technique is sensitive to smaller planets that could be warm rocky worlds.

By exploiting new survey facilities that are being led by Dr Pinfield and his network, they aim to improve their understanding of the broad nature of extra-solar planet populations, and explore new extra-solar planet territory around the coolest stars in our galaxy. Intersectorial activities will be carried out jointly at UH and Astrium, and will centre on the European Space Agency’s Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 program to implement the next generation of space-based observatories.

“The project will thus be looking to the future as well as focusing on the ongoing search for and study of planets around other stars,” Dr Pinfield added.

Image Caption: Artist’s impression of the planet OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (with surface temperature of approximately ∴220 °C), orbiting its star 20,000 light years (117.5 quadrillion miles) from Earth; this planet was discovered with gravitational microlensing. NASA

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