Leading astronomers discuss ESA mission to find Earth-like planets

January 10, 2002

Brussels, 09 January 2002

Leading European and US astronomers will meet in London on 11 January 2002 to discuss an ambitious European space agency (ESA) mission to find Earth-like planets and examine the structure of stars.

The scientists will come together at a Royal Astronomical Society meeting entitled 'Stellar seismology, extra-solar planet-finding and the Eddington mission.'

Scientists from more than 40 European laboratories are currently working to develop ESA's Eddington project, which aims to discover and study Earth-like planets around distant stars and determine the internal structure of stars by measuring small internal vibrations.

Scientists have discovered that stars - giant balls of gas - vibrate as shock waves pass through them. These vibrations can be used to find out more about the insides of the stars. While oscillations have been observed from the ground, it is hoped the Eddington mission will allow them to be observed in much greater detail.

Professor Ian Roxburgh of Queen Mary University of London, UK, said: 'These studies will help us to understand the evolution of stars, including our Sun, and galaxies, as well as improve our methods of measuring ages and stellar distances.'

More than 70 extrasolar planets are currently known, most of which are hundreds of times bigger than the Earth. The Eddington mission will search for further planets, particularly ones which may be able to support life, by measuring the dimming effect which occurs when a planet passes in front of a star. It is hoped that the mission could discover up to 20,000 planets by observing around 500,000 stars. Some 100 or so of these are expected to be Earth-like worlds located in the temperate, habitable zones around their stars.

'We can calculate the orbital period of the planet, and so determine its orbital distance, by measuring the time interval between each transit,' explained Professor Roxburgh. 'The depth of the eclipse - the amount of dimming - tells us how much of the star has been covered and so indicates the size of the unseen planet. Since we know the properties of the star, we can also calculate whether the planet lies in the so-called 'habitable zone' - neither too hot nor too cold for life.'

The Eddington craft, which has a possible launch date of 2007, is named after the British astronomer Arthur Eddington, whose research provided new insights into the workings of the interiors of stars.

For further information, please contact:

Professor Ian Roxburgh
Queen Mary University of London
Mile End Road
E1 4NS
Tel: +44 207 882 5441
Email: i.w.roxburgh@qmul.ac.uk

Dr Alan Penny
Rutherford Appleton laboratory
OX11 0QX
Tel: +44 7941 721 733
Email: alan.penny@rl.ac.uk

or consult the following web addresses:

http://sci.esa.int/home/eddington/index .cfm

http://www.ras.org.uk/meetings/2002/020 111.htm

CORDIS RTD-NEWS/© European Communities, 2001

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