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Qatar-led international team finds their first alien world

Last Updated on Thursday, 09 December 2010 17:01
Published on Tuesday, 14 December 2010 13:00

In an exciting example of international collaboration, a Qatar astronomer teamed up with scientists at the Universities of St Andrews, Leicester and Keele in the United Kingdom and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in the United States to discover a new alien world. This 'hot Jupiter', now named Qatar-1b, adds to the growing list of alien planets orbiting distant stars, or exoplanets. Its discovery demonstrates the power of science to cross political boundaries and increase ties between nations. The team have submitted their results to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Qatar-1b
An artist's impression of the exoplanet Qatar-1b. Credit: David Aguilar, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)
"Qatar is proud to contribute to the search for planets around other stars. The discovery of Qatar-1b is a great achievement – one that further demonstrates Qatar’s commitment to becoming a leader in innovative science and research" said Dr. Khalid Al Subai, leader of the Qatar exoplanet survey and a research director of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.

"The discovery of Qatar-1b marks the beginning of a new era of collaborative astrophysics research between Qatar, the United Kingdom, and the United States" he added.

St Andrews astronomer Prof. Keith Horne said “Qatar-1b is just the beginning.  With Qatar's new planet-hunting cameras, we should soon be finding smaller planets as well, hot Saturns and hot Neptunes, and ultimately, with a different technique, cool Earths.”

Building on UK technology developed for the SuperWASP exoplanet survey, the St Andrews and Leicester teams worked with Dr Al Subai to establish the computer systems used to process raw images from the Al Subai cameras, extracting and sifting through data from hundreds of thousands of stars.

Over a period of time, some planets will temporarily and periodically block the light of the parent star they orbit as they pass directly between that star and the Earth. These ‘transit’ events produce a characteristic dip in the light from the star that then reveals the orbiting planet. Of the vast number of stars observed, only a few will have detectable planets.

"The discovery of Qatar-1b is a wonderful example of how science and modern communications can erase international borders and time zones. No one owns the stars. We can all be inspired by the discovery of distant worlds" said CfA team member David Latham.

To find the new world, Qatar's wide-angle cameras (located in New Mexico) took images of the sky every clear night beginning in early 2010. The photographs then were transmitted to the UK for analysis by collaborating astronomers at St. Andrews and Leicester Universities and by Dr Al Subai in Qatar. That analysis narrowed the field to a few hundred candidate stars.

The Harvard-Smithsonian team, with Dr Al Subai, followed up on the most promising candidates, making spectroscopic observations with the 1.5 m diameter telescope at the Smithsonian's Whipple Observatory in Arizona. Such observations can weed out binary-star systems with grazing eclipses, which mimic planetary transits. They also measured the stars' dimming more accurately using KeplerCam on Whipple's 1.2 m telescope.

Two UK-based telescopes, the 1 m Gregory Telescope at St Andrews and the 0.6 m telescope at Keele, were used to confirm the Qatar-1b transits, refine the orbital period and pin down the planetary radius. Observing between snowstorms, St Andrews students took part in the discovery of Qatar-1. “We look forward to teams of UK and Qatari students working together to discover new worlds” said St Andrews astronomer Prof. Andrew Cameron

The resulting data confirmed the existence of a planet now called Qatar-1b, orbiting an orange Type K star 550 light-years away. Qatar-1b is a gas giant 20 percent larger than Jupiter in diameter and 10 percent more massive. It belongs to the ‘hot Jupiter’ family because it orbits 3.5 million km from its star - only six stellar radii away. The planet roasts at a temperature of around 1100 degrees Celsius.

Qatar-1b circles its star once every 1.4 days, meaning that its "year" is just 34 hours long. It's expected to be tidally locked with the star, so one side of the planet always faces the star. As a result, the planet spins on its axis once every 34 hours - three times slower than Jupiter, which rotates once in 10 hours.

CONTACTS

Dr Khalid Al Subai
Research Director
Qatar Foundation – for interview requests contact Riham M. El-Houshi

Riham M. El-Houshi
Corporate and Programme Communication Specialist
Communication Directorate
Qatar Foundation
Tel: +974 4454 0967
Mob: +974 331 800 96
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Stephanie M. Hartgrove
Corporate and Public Relations Manager
Communication Directorate
Qatar Foundation
Tel: +974 4454 0988
Mob: +974 3328 4767
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Professor Andrew Cameron
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 463 147
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Professor Keith Horne
University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 (0)1334 463 322
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Professor Coel Hellier
Keele University
Tel: +44 (0)1782 734 243
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Christine Pulliam
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
Tel: +1 617 495 7463
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Dr David Latham
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
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Dr Robert Massey
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307 x214
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

IMAGE AND CAPTION

An artist’s impression of the exoplanet Qatar-1b can be seen at
http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~kdh1/qatar1.html
Credit: David Aguilar, CfA

FURTHER INFORMATION

The team have submitted their results to the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. From Tuesday 14 December a preprint of their paper will be available at http://star-www.st-and.ac.uk/~kdh1/qatar1.html

NOTES FOR EDITORS

Qatar Foundation – Unlocking Human Potential

Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development is a private, non-profit organization that is supporting Qatar on its journey from carbon economy to knowledge economy by unlocking human potential for the benefit of not only Qatar, but the world.

Founded in 1995 by His Highness Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Amir of Qatar, QF is chaired by Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned.

QF carries out its mission through three strategic pillars: education, science and research, and community development.  QF’s education pillar brings world-class universities to Qatar to help create an education sector in which young people can develop the attitudes and skills required for a knowledge economy.  Meanwhile, its science and research pillar builds Qatar's innovation and technology capacity by developing and commercialising solutions through key sciences. Finally, its community development pillar helps foster a progressive society while also enhancing cultural life, protecting Qatar’s heritage and addressing immediate social needs in the community.
 
For a complete list of QF’s initiatives and projects, visit www.qf.org.qa

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory, headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., USA. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

The Royal Astronomical Society

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.