Scientists search for Earth-like planets

Astronomers from the University have joined a hunt to discover Earth-like planets.

Scientists from St Andrews and Edinburgh are joining an international team to build an instrument that can analyse potential planets identified by NASA's Kepler space probe.

The instrument, called HARPS-N, will be created in a project also involving Queen’s University Belfast and the Universities of Geneva, Harvard and the Italian Institute of Astrophysics.

The device will be installed on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo at the Roque de Los Muchachos observatory in the Canary Islands.

Collated images

Since its launch in March 2009, Kepler has been continually taking images of a single area of sky.

From this data, researchers have identified 1200 stars that show indications of having planetary systems.

Analysing data

HARPS-N will not literally see planets, as the potential systems are too faint to be viewed with any telescope.

Instead HARPS looks at the stars and measures tiny effects the accompanying planets have on the stars’ motion.

The less massive the planet, the tinier the effect it has on the star, and the more precise an instrument is needed to detect it.

New planets

The HARPS-N instrument in combination with an analysis of the Kepler data will allow the nature of many of the planets to be understood.

Theorists predict that a broad spectrum of different kinds of planet may be identified.

Some of these planets may be Earth-like.

Kepler and HARPS-N offer the first hope to find planets like the Earth that are at distances from their sun that would allow water to exist as a liquid and, potentially, life, as we know it, to evolve.

Dr Ken RiceInstitute for Astronomy