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Astronomers gear up to discover Earth-like planets

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Posted June 7, 2013
Many stars are enshrouded in a dust cloud that may hide undiscovered planets with conditions suitable to life. The star Fomalhaut, depicted in this artist's impression, was recently found to have a faint dust cloud in a region resembling the Main Asteroid Belt in our solar system that might harbor yet undetected planets. Credit: ESA, NASA and L. Calcada/ESO

Many stars are enshrouded in a dust cloud that may hide undiscovered planets with conditions suitable to life. The star Fomalhaut, depicted in this artist’s impression, was recently found to have a faint dust cloud in a region resembling the Main Asteroid Belt in our solar system that might harbor yet undetected planets. Credit: ESA, NASA and L. Calcada/ESO

If one looks only for the shiniest pennies in the fountain, chances are one misses most of the coins because they shimmer less brightly. This, in a nutshell, is the conundrum astronomers face when searching for Earth-like planets outside our solar system.

Astronomers at the University of Arizona are part of an international team of exoplanets hunters developing new technology that would dramatically improve the odds of discovering planets with conditions suitable for life – such as having liquid water on the surface.

The team presented its results at a scientific conference sponsored by the International Astronomical Union in Victoria, British Columbia.

Terrestrial planets orbiting nearby stars often are concealed by vast clouds of dustenveloping the star and its system of planets. Our solar system, too, has a dust cloud, which consists mostly of debris left behind by clashing asteroids and exhaust spewing out of comets when they pass by the sun.

“Current technology allows us to detect only the brightest clouds, those that are a few thousand times brighter than the one in our solar system,” said Denis Defrère, apostdoctoral fellow in the UA’s department of astronomy and instrument scientist of theLarge Binocular Telescope Interferometer, or LBTI.

He explained that while the brighter clouds are easier to see, their intense glare makes detecting putative Earth-like planets difficult, if not impossible. “We want to be able to detect fainter dust clouds, which would dramatically increase our chances of finding more of these planets.”

“If you see a dust cloud around a star, that’s an indication of rocky debris, and it increases the likelihood of there being something Earth-like around that star,” said Phil Hinz, an associate professor of astronomy at the UA’s Steward Observatory.

Read more at: Phys.org

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