Scottish astronomers and engineers join search for new earth-like planets

Astronomers from the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh are joining their counterparts from Queen's University Belfast and the Universities of Geneva, Harvard and INAF-TNG in the hunt for extra-solar planets similar to the Earth. Together they will be building and using a new instrument called HARPS-N for the Italian 3.5-metre Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands. The instrument will be able to analyze the light of candidates identified from NASA’s Kepler space probe.

Since its launch in March 2009, Kepler has been continually taking images of a single area of sky in the constellation of Cygnus. Of the hundreds of thousands of stars visible in these images, around 1200 show indications of having planetary systems.

Commenting on this latest development in space, Queens astronomer Professor Don Pollacco said: “Kepler looks for tiny tell-tale dimmings in the light of stars that occur when orbiting planets pass in front of them. However, to be able to understand what kind of worlds these planets are, the light has to be subjected to more detailed examination with the HARPS-N instrument.” .

HARPS-N will not directly "see" planets. The Kepler planets are far too faint to be seen with any telescope. Instead HARPS looks at their stars and measures the tiny effect the accompanying planets have on their motion. The less massive the planet, the tinier the effect it produces on the star, and the more precise the instrument needed to detect it is.

“ HARPS is able to detect movements at velocities of just a metre per second — the speed of a person walking — in a star hundreds of light-years away. This has allowed planets only a few times more massive than the Earth to be discovered” says Professor Andrew Cameron of the University of St Andrews, who leads the UK contribution to the project.

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 are possible ranging from solid iron planets through to “solid” water planets with an Earth-like planet somewhere in between. “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”, says Dr Ken Rice of the University of Edinburgh.

HARPS-N project
The HARPS-N project was officially launched in December 2010, with the signing of an international agreement by INAF (Italian National Institute for Astrophysics). HARPS-N will be installed on TNG (Telescopio Nazionale Galileo), the 3.6 metres INAF telescope hosted by the Roque de Los Muchachos observatory, in the Canary Islands.

The HARPS-N project is coordinated by an international consortium led by the Astronomical Observatory of the University of Geneva and comprising: the National Institute for Astrophysics (Italy); the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, the Harvard College Observatory and the Harvard University Origins of Life Initiative (USA); University of St Andrews; University of Edinburgh, and Queen’s University Belfast (UK).

The project partners are granted 80 observing nights per year to use HARPS-N coupled to the TNG. HARPS-N is currently under construction in Geneva and Edinburgh. Full operating status is scheduled for 1 April 2012.

As part of the UK contribution to the HARPS-N Instrument, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh will be responsible for delivering the Front End Adapter (FEA), Calibration Unit (CU), a fully tested Detector sub-system and the low level Instrument Control Software. These sub-systems will then be fully integrated with the HARPS-N spectrograph which is being built at Geneva Observatory before final delivery and commissioning is completed at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG) in the Canary Islands. HARPS-N is due to commence science operations from spring 2012. It will be the northern counterpart of HARPS at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the Chilean Andes, which is currently the most powerful exoplanet hunter in the world.

Media inquiries to:

Gayle Cook
Senior Communications Manager, Press Office, St Katharine's West
16 The Scores, St Andrews, KY16 9AX, Fife
Telephone: +44 (0)1334 467227
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Catriona Kelly
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Notes for Editors:

1) HARPS (South) is ESO's High-Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher. It is currently operated at ESO's 3.6-m telescope at the La Silla-Paranal Observatory, Chile. HARPS belongs to the most successful planet-hunting instruments and holds the world-record in terms of precision in measuring stellar velocities. We refer to ESO's web page for more details:

2) The star, around which an extra-solar planet is orbiting, is pulled and pushed by the planet-star gravitational interaction on a small circular or elliptical orbit. The stellar velocity, as seen from the Earth, is therefore varying with time. HARPS is able to detect very tiny velocity changes of the star by means of the Doppler effect, which makes the stellar 'colour' change when its velocity changes. HARPS is so precise that it can measure velocity changes of a star as low as a those of walking person.


INAF's Telescopio Nazionale Galileo at Roque de los Muchachos, Canary Islands - Credit: INAF-TNG



The HARPS instrument during optical alignment. Extreme precision is achieved by operating the spectrograph in vacuum - Credit: University of Geneva



NASA's successful KEPLER satellite - Credit: NASA/Kepler mission/Wendy Stenzel



HARPS-North overview:


Professor Andrew Collier Cameron (UK Co-PI)
Professor Keith Horne
SUPA School of Physics & Astronomy, University of St Andrews
Tel +44 (0) 1334 463322

Professor Don Pollacco
Astrophysics Research Centre, School of Mathematics and Physics
Queens University Belfast
Tel +44 (0) 2890 973512

Dr Ken Rice
Institute for Astronomy, School of Physics and Astronomy
University of Edinburgh
Tel: +44 (0) 131 668 8384

Dr Francesco Pepe (PI)
Observatoire Astronomique de l'Université de Genève
51, ch. des Maillettes, CH-1290 Versoix, Switzerland
Tel: Phone +41 (0)22 379 23 96

David Lunney (Project Manager)
UK Astronomy Technology Centre
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
Blackford Hill, Edinburgh
Tel: Phone +44 (0)131 668 8303