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Scottish astronomers join hunt for new Earth-like planets

Monday 14 February 2011

Sunset at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo on La Palma, Canary Islands

Sunset at the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo on La Palma, Canary Islands

Astronomers from the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh have joined in the hunt for new Earth-like planets.

In a new international collaboration, the Scottish astronomers will build a new instrument that will be able to analyse the light of candidates identified from NASA’s Kepler space probe.

Together with their counterparts from Queen's University Belfast  and the Universities of Geneva, Harvard and INAF-TNG, the instrument, called HARPS-N, will be based in the Canary Islands.

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.

HARPS-N will not directly ‘see’ planets as 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.

Professor Andrew Cameron of the University of St Andrews, who leads the UK contribution to the project, commented,  “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.”

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.

Dr Ken Rice of the University of Edinburgh, explained, “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”.


Note to Editors

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 meters 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 April 1st, 2012.

The researchers are available for interview


Professor Keith Horne
SUPA School of Physics & Astronomy, University of St Andrews
Telephone: +44 (0) 1334 463322

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

Note to Picture Editors

Images are available from the Press Office - contacts below.

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews

Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, email