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RAS PN 08/19 (NAM 10): Chance of finding Earthlike planets on the ‘RISE’

Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 April 2010 18:30
Published on Wednesday, 02 April 2008 00:01
Using a revolutionary new camera, UK astronomers have a real chance of being the first to find Earth-like planets around other stars. PhD student Neale Gibson of Queen’s University Belfast will present the first results from the RISE instrument in his talk on Wednesday 2 April at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast.

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EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 BST, 2 April 2008

Date:  28 March 2008
Ref.: PN 08/19 (NAM 10)

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NAM 2008

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RAS PN 08/19 (NAM 10) (EMBARGOED): CHANCE OF FINDING EARTHLIKE PLANETS ON THE ‘RISE’ AS UK ASTRONOMERS DEPLOY NEW CAMERA

Using a revolutionary new camera, UK astronomers have a real chance of being the first to find Earth-like planets around other stars. PhD student Neale Gibson of Queen’s University Belfast will present the first results from the RISE instrument in his talk on Wednesday 2 April at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast.

RISE is a new fast camera designed by astronomers at Queen's University, Belfast (QUB) in collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University and is now installed on the 2m Liverpool Telescope on the Canary Island of La Palma. Professor John Meaburn of the Jodrell Bank Research Centre at the University of Manchester specified the optics and steered the mechanical design.

Since the early 1990s, astronomers have found more than 200 planets in orbit around stars other than our Sun (so-called ‘extrasolar’ planets). These have been detected through two techniques that are particularly sensitive to massive planets in orbit close to their parent star. Firstly, planets can be found through their gravitational pull on the star they orbit - as the extrasolar planet moves the star wobbles back and forth. By measuring this movement astronomers can deduce the presence of a planet. Secondly, the transit search technique looks for the dip in brightness of a star as a planet passes in front of it.

However, neither of these techniques is currently good enough to find small extrasolar planets similar to the Earth. So far most of those found are so-called ‘hot Jupiters’ - large gas giant planets very close to their parent star.

The RISE camera is primarily designed to find Earth-mass planets in orbit around stars already known to host hot Jupiters. With RISE, scientists will search for extrasolar planets using a technique called transit timing, which may provide a short cut to discovering Earth-like planets with existing technology.

Transit timing works on the principle that an isolated hot Jupiter planet orbiting its host will have a constant orbital period (i.e. its ‘year’ remains the same) and therefore it will block out the light from its parent star in a regular and predictable way. During the planet’s transit events, RISE can very accurately measure the rise and fall in the amount of light reaching the Earth from the parent star – the camera can be used to pinpoint the time of the centre of the event to within 10 seconds.

By observing and timing their transits, astronomers hope to detect small changes in the orbital periods of known hot Jupiters caused by the gravitational pull of other planets in the same system. In the right circumstances, even planets as small as the Earth could be found in this way.

Gibson comments, “The potential of transit timing is the result of some very simple physics, where multi-planet systems will gravitationally kick one another around in their orbits - an effect often witnessed in our own Solar System. If Earth-mass planets are present in nearby orbits (which is predicted by current Hot-Jupiter formation theories) we will see their effect on the orbit of the larger transiting planets”

‘RISE will allow us to observe and time the transits of extrasolar planets very accurately, which gives us the sensitivity required to detect the effect of even small Earth-mass planets”.

FURTHER INFORMATION INCLUDING IMAGES

Images of extrasolar planets and RISE camera

Neale Gibson, Queen’s University Belfast – more information on RISE project and transit timing

RISE camera

Liverpool Telescope home page

RAS National Astronomy Meeting

RAS home page

NOTES FOR EDITORS

RISE is supported by The Queen’s University of Belfast, Liverpool John Moores University, the Science and Technology Facilities Council and Prof John Meaburn of The University of Manchester.

The Liverpool Telescope is operated on the island of La Palma by Liverpool John Moores University in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias with financial support from the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The RAS National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2008) is hosted by Queen’s University Belfast. It is principally sponsored by the RAS and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). NAM 2008 is being held together with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP) and Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) spring meetings.

CONTACT

Neale Gibson
Astrophysics Research Centre
Physics Building
Queen’s University Belfast
Belfast BT7 1NN
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Tel: +44 (0)28 9097 2585