Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Planet hunters pledge Eddington support

15.01.2002


Stellar silhouette: artist’s impression of a giant planet passing it’s parent star. Eddington could spot a shadow 10 times smaller.
© Lynette R. Cook


Belt tightening cloud could have silver-lining for Europe’s planet hunters

European planet hunters are rallying round a beleaguered effort to launch the first spacecraft that might detect Earth-like planets beyond our own Solar System. Meeting in London last week they agreed that the low-cost, low-risk mission has a lot to offer.

The planet-spotting mission Eddington has been approved by the European Space Agency (ESA), but is currently on hold awaiting funds; unless they materialize it could be scrapped by the end of the year. "Everything is up in the air at the moment," says Ian Roxburgh, an astronomer at the University of London and joint-leader of the mission1.



The spacecraft, named after the 1930s British astronomer Arthur Eddington, will hover in an orbit between the Earth and the Sun for four years. It will train light sensors on a cluster of 500,000 nearby stars, hoping to detect the silhouettes of Earth-sized planets passing in front of them.

Star turn

This technique and others have spotted over 70 planets in our Galaxy outside our own Solar System. The planets seen so far have all been huge - at least as big as Jupiter. But interference from the atmosphere and the rotation of the Earth have made it impossible to see a star clearly enough for long enough to infer the presence of smaller, Earth-sized planets.

Astronomers hope that the Eddington mission will detect planets as small as Mars. By measuring how fast a planet is moving, it will also estimate how far away from its star a planet is orbiting, and therefore whether it is capable of supporting life. "We can calculate whether the planet lies in the habitable zone - neither too hot nor too cold for life," says Roxburgh.

Eddington’s camera will also study stars’ innards. By monitoring fluctuating light emissions, it will discern ripples on the surface on stars, which are evidence of inner shock waves. "The (wave) frequency we observe at the surface of stars is a direct probe of what is going on within," says Fabio Favata, Eddington’s mission scientist at ESA.

This technique - called astroseismology - can only be performed in the stillness of space. It has never been done before beyond our own Sun. "These studies will help us understand the evolution of stars and galaxies, and improve our methods for measuring stellar ages and distances," says Roxburgh.

Competition time

Until recently, says Alan Penny, joint-leader of Eddington at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, UK, the mission seemed to be doomed after ESA cut its budget for space science missions1. And last month NASA gave funding to Kepler - an all-American mission almost identical to Eddington - to look for Earth-like planets in the same region of space, only with a larger telescope.

Now all-round belt-tightening could act to Eddington’s advantage. "Eddington was on thin ice, but now everyone is on thin ice," Penny says. Sean O’Keefe, NASA’s new administrator, who was appointed in November, is cutting spending; and several ESA missions are falling behind deadline. Eddington is cheap and reliable and so "could rapidly fill the gap if the spending profile moves", suggests Penny.

William Borucki of the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffat Field, California, is confident that the Kepler mission that he is leading will be the first to spot Earth-sized planets. "We’ve every reason to think we’re going to fly," he says.

But Borucki hopes Eddington makes it too. "I don’t think of it as a competition," he says. "It’s an important mission and will add to our science."

References

  1. Goodman, S. Europe puts the squeeze on space projects. Nature, 414, 383, (2001).


TOM CLARKE | © Nature News Service
Further information:
http://www.nature.com/nsu/020114/020114-2.html

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: LaserTAB: More efficient and precise contacts thanks to human-robot collaboration

At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.

Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

Im Focus: Ultrafast snapshots of relaxing electrons in solids

Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!

When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Fraunhofer ISE Pushes World Record for Multicrystalline Silicon Solar Cells to 22.3 Percent

25.09.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Usher syndrome: Gene therapy restores hearing and balance

25.09.2017 | Health and Medicine

An international team of physicists a coherent amplification effect in laser excited dielectrics

25.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>