Belfast Telegraph

Stargazers at Queen's University Belfast focus on new worlds

By Steven Alexander

Planet hunters from Queen's University Belfast have taken a giant leap forward in their quest to discover new worlds.

Their survey of the heavens at the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile will reach a level of accuracy never before attained under observatory conditions.

Highly sensitive telescopes - parts of which have been manufactured in Belfast by Andor Technology - will search for small, rocky planets as they pass in front of the stars they orbit.

As they do, they produce a tiny, brief dimming of that star's light. Only a few such very delicate observations have ever been made, but the Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) should provide many more opportunities.

NGTS will focus on discovering Neptune-sized and smaller planets, with diameters between two and eight times that of Earth, that orbit relatively nearby bright stars - making detailed follow-up of the planets possible.

The data found will be made available to astronomers worldwide for decades to come.

The Paranal site will continuously monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars in the southern skies and should reach a level of accuracy - one part in a thousand - that has never before been attained in a ground-based survey.

Dr Christopher Watson from the Astrophysics Research Centre at Queen's University said: "This is a truly exciting time and a major coup for Queen's.

"NGTS will not only discover a whole host of new planets, including 'super-Earths' a little larger than our own planet, but some of these will be amongst the best planets with which to perform more detailed investigations.

"Are we looking at a rocky, terrestrial-like planet? What are their atmospheres like?

"It was not so long ago that answering such questions was unthinkable - NGTS discoveries will keep us occupied for many years," he said.

Belfast-based Andor Technology - a QUB spin-out company that has grown into a multinational with offices in China, Japan and the USA - has provided the scientific camera equipment at the Paranal site.

Dr Colin Coates of Andor said: "This is great for our company and great for Belfast.

"We have been supplying detectors to this prestigious consortium for several years, during which time Andor has become a very strong solution provider to the broader astronomy community."

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