Queen’s scientist leads study of ‘Super-Earth’

Research led by an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast could pave the way in the search for life on other planets.

Up to now, only space-based telescopes have been able to detect planets near the size of the Earth that pass in front of stars like the Sun. An astronomer in the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen’s University has led an international team to detect a super-Earth, a planet with more mass than Earth but less than Uranus or Neptune, using a telescope on the ground.

Previously, this has only been possible for one other super-Earth circling a star much fainter and cooler than the Sun. This breakthrough opens up new ways to study other worlds.

The planet, called 55 Cancri e, periodically passes in front of a star only 40 light years from the Earth. The star can even be seen with the naked eye on a clear and moonless night. For this detection the team used the 2.5-meter Nordic Optical Telescope, which is an excellent facility for this kind of study. Previous observations of this planet had to rely on telescopes in space.

According to Dr. Ernst de Mooij, the Michael West Fellow at the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, who was the lead author of the study, the planet 55 Cancri e is far from hospitable for life, at twice the diameter of Earth and temperatures reaching nearly 1700 Celsius.

Their study paves the way for studying many more planets similar in size to Earth with telescopes on the ground. Some of these planets may even have the conditions needed to sustain life.

Dr. de Mooij, from the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This is especially important because upcoming space missions such as the NASA TESS mission in 2017 and ESA’s PLATO mission in 2024, which should find many small planets around bright stars which are ideally suited for this type of study. “

“Observations like these are paving the way as we strive towards searching for signs of life on alien planets from afar. Remote sensing across tens of light-years is not easy, but it can be done with the right technique and a bit of ingenuity.” added study co-author Dr. Ray Jayawardhana of York University, Canada.

Dr. de Mooij has recently moved from the University of Toronto to Queen’s to carry out this exciting research. The research team also includes Dr. Mercedes Lopez-Morales of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in the USA as well as Drs. Raine Karjalainen and Marie Hrudkova of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma, Spain. Their findings appear in a paper to be published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Nordic Optical Telescope is operated on the island of La Palma jointly by Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, in the Spanish Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos of the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias.

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