Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Qatar funds collaborative discovery of new exo-Planet

PhD students Grant Miller and David Brown used Scotland's largest optical telescope, the 0.9m diameter James Gregory telescope at the St Andrews campus observatory, to confirm the presence and measure the diameter of the new planet, contributing to the discovery of a new alien world.

The St Andrews team helped to find the new planet in record time thanks to teamwork and internet communications between astronomers in Qatar, the US, Germany, Denmark, and at the Universities of Leicester and Keele.

The group said this discovery was a good example of successful collaboration across international borders and time zones.

The planet, described as a 'hot Jupiter' which has been named Qatar-1b, adds to the growing list of alien planets orbiting distant stars discovered by scientists around the world.

These distant planets are detected by scientists who closely study the light emitted by stars. Because the planets orbit their parent star, and will regularly pass directly between it and the earth and block its light, causing a characteristic dip in the amount of light coming from the star.

While a huge number of stars are observed, only a few will have detectable planets.

In this case, Qatar's wide-angle cameras - located in New Mexico - took images of the sky every clear night beginning in early 2010. The digital images then were transmitted to the UK for computer analysis by collaborating astronomers at St Andrews, Leicester and Qatar.

Data from hundreds of thousands of stars was examined after it was extracted from the images, and the analysis narrowed the field to a few hundred possible stars.

The group followed up on the most promising candidates with Dr David Latham from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, making observations from Arizona to weed out binary-star systems with grazing eclipses that can mimic planetary transits. The resulting data measured the mass of the new planet.

Dr Latham said: "The discovery of Qatar-1b is a wonderful example of how science and modern communications can erase international borders and time zones. No one owns the stars. We can all be inspired by the discovery of distant worlds."

Qatar-1b is a gas giant planet, 20% larger than Jupiter in diameter and 10% more massive. It belongs to the 'hot Jupiter' family because it orbits 3.5 million km from its star, so close that it roasts at a temperature of around 1100 degrees Celsius. The orbital period is just 34 hours.

St Andrews astronomer Professor Keith Horne said: "Qatar-1b is just the beginning. With Qatar's new planet-hunting cameras, we should soon be finding smaller planets as well, hot Saturns and hot Neptunes, and ultimately, with a different technique, cool Earths.

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