The Open University; University of St Andrews; University of Hertfordshire; The Faulkes Telescope Project; The Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics; Keele University; Queen's University Belfast
In just 12 years, the number of planets identified outside our Solar System has risen from none to nearly 300. A planet just like Earth has yet to be found, with most being closer in size to Jupiter.
‘We are looking for Earth-like planets in what is known as the Goldilocks Zone, where it is not too hot nor too cold for life,’ says Carole Haswell, of the Astronomy Research Group, The Open University. ‘Given progress so far we should find the first clues for life elsewhere in the Universe, within our lifetime.’
Astronomers do not directly observe these far away planets but can detect them due to the effects the planet have on light emitted by their parent star. ‘We look for wobbles, winks and blips,’ says Andrew Norton also of the Astronomy Research Group.
The gravitational pull of an orbiting planet causes a star to move slightly, or wobble, which causes a change in the colour of light emitted. A star ‘winks’ as the orbiting planet momentarily blocks the light they emit. A blip is due to a planet bending and brightening the light emitted by a background star, a technique known as gravitational microlensing. ‘These effects are picked up by a network of powerful telescopes worldwide’, says Andrew. ‘Many of which employ UK technology.’
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