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Lift off for Eddington Mission to look inside the stars and search for planets like Earth


"It is not too much to hope that in the not too distant future we shall be competent to understand so simple a thing as a star" (Arthur Eddington 1926)

Following a press conference this morning (Monday 27 May 2002) in Paris, the European Space Agency confirmed the establishment of the Eddington Mission as part of its new Science programme. Astronomers, led by Professor Ian Roxburgh of Queen Mary, University of London, proposed the mission in 2000, and the Eddington Satellite is to be launched in 2007/8.

Named after the British astronomer, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, who laid the foundations for our understanding of how stars work, the Eddington Mission aims to answer the question Eddington asked himself in 1926:

"What appliance can pierce through the outer layers of a star and test the conditions within." (AS Eddington, Internal Constitution of the Stars, 1926). Almost eighty years later, we have the answer.

The Eddington satellite (consisting of four telescopes) will gaze at different regions of the sky for intervals of about two months each, observing over 200,000 stars, measuring changes in light of one part of one million, and thus allowing astronomers to work out what stars are like inside (asteroseismology). Asteroseismology is the appliance Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington sought. This will enable astronomers to understand how stars work and to use this knowledge to measure the age of stars and components of our galaxy, and to understand how elements were formed.

The Mission will then search for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, pointing continuously at one region of the sky for three years, measuring light from over 100,000 stars and detecting the tiny decrease in light as a planet passes in front of the star. In addition the Eddington Mission will discover many larger planets and give astronomers the information to understand how the solar system was found.

Professor Ian Roxburgh, Science Co-ordinator of the Mission, said:

"The approval of the Eddington Mission is great news. I am very, very happy! I first started working on such a mission in 1982, and this is the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of scientists. At last we will be able to find planets like the Earth around other stars and to understand how stars work and how they change as they get older. Discovering the existence of planets like the Earth, with properties similar to those on Earth, is a first step towards searching for signs of life elsewhere in the Universe."

Over fifty research groups around Europe are involved in the Eddington Mission, including eight from the UK. Ian Roxburgh, Keith Horne (University of St Andrews) and Gerry Gilmore (University of Cambridge) are part of the Eddington Science Team that has been developing the Mission. It is under the overall direction of the European Space Agency Study Scientist Fabio Favata.

Kate Hunter | alphagalileo
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