back to article Earth-bound exoplanet hunter's eyes blink open

The European Space Observatory (ESO) is reporting “first light” from the world's latest exoplanet hunter, an Earth-based optical instrument in Chile. The Next Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) at the ESO's Paranal observatory in the north of the country will, like NASA's Kepler space telescope, try to detect exoplanets as they …

  1. Winkypop Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Exoplanet exploration excitement

    Fascinating stuff.

  2. Major Ebaneezer Wanktrollop

    Question

    Whilst I am a keen science / astronomy follower and also find this fascinating I can't help but think how this was funded?

    'We want to build an array of telescopes that detect exo-planets via their transits of their home star'

    'Keplers already doing it and doesn't suffer from atmospheric distortion and artifical light'

    'Well OK, we can look at different areas of the sky than Kepler'

    'Fine, if you find more exo-planets how will that be of benefit to mankind as we already know there are hundreds out there already - what benefit is there to finding more as we can never communicate with them or send probes to any of them for generations to come, quite possibly never?'

    'urmmmm'

    'No problem, here's £500m'

    Like I said, I'm glad this kind of stuff goes on as I'm deeply interested in it - I just don't quite get how they attract funding whereas SETI struggles for every dollar, a project which I think could in time reap rewards whereas this duplication seems rather strange????

    1. Tom Womack

      Re: Question

      This project cost £2.5 million.

      Kepler answered 'how common are exoplanets'. This project will answer 'what are the easiest largish exoplanets to observe'. The TESS satellite, launching in summer 2017, which is much the same as this project but done from space at about a hundred times the cost, will produce a complete catalogue of exoplanets around bright stars, down to half the size of the ones found by this project.

      The problem with Kepler is that it looked at such faint stars that it took inordinate effort to follow up the results; if you find planets around significantly brighter stars, you can do radial-velocity follow-up with moderate telescopes (which confirms that you've found a planet rather than a sunspot of unusual size, and tells you whether there are other planets in the system), there's the possibility of doing differential spectroscopy from space to find out what their atmospheres are made of, and if the stars are bright because they're close there's the possibility of directly imaging the planets with things like the Gemini Planet Imager.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Question

        "This project cost £2.5 million."

        ...and by Govt. standards, it's chump change for publicly visible and currently popular (with the general public) science so various ministers can get some sound bites.

        Don't get me wrong, I'm all for more science, however much the scientists have to schmoooze to get the funding, but it'd be nice if some Govt. bods would spend big on the off chance of spin-offs rather than only looking at short term political re-election gains.

        1. twelvebore

          Re: Question

          The majority of the capital costs have come from the Universities involved in the project, rather than directly from the Government. The running costs will come from our research council (STFC), which itself is funded by Government, but isn't actually a part of the Government.

          In the UK, broadly speaking, politicians really don't get involved in funding decisions on science projects of this (small) scale. Only at the scale of the CERN/ESO/ESA subscriptions do politicians take an interest, these costs are tens/hundreds of millions and are recurring costs.

    2. cray74

      Re: Question

      " I just don't quite get how they attract funding whereas SETI struggles for every dollar, a project which I think could in time reap rewards whereas this duplication seems rather strange????"

      I disagree that this is a "duplication," but to address your basic question: it's about results and interest.

      Even Kepler, which spots little wiggles of light from stars and gives results as dull charts and tables, is producing newsworthy, publishable data. It finds ALIEN EARTHS, which are TOTALLY like EARTH! (Except for being 5 times as massive, having surface temperatures over 500K, and a 1000-bar hydrogen atmosphere.) Mars rovers attract attention because they're plucky and they return cool pics of Martian vistas (and have Twitter accounts now!). Cassini buzzes distant moons and, yep, returns cool pics. Rosetta is hanging out with a space duck and had this attention-grabbing story about the stalwart little lander that bounced across the surface of a FRICKIN' COMET and then spent its last, dying joules of energy sending home scientific data. ("3% ammonia...getting cold now...2% carbon monoxide...Tell Wanda and the kids I love them..." [static]) Hubble...ZOMG, Hubble pictures! Pillars of Creation! Carina Nebula! The mysteries of the universe boiled down to cool pics that get published by every newspaper! And against all that, SETI peeps out, "Didn't hear anything today, either."

      Hubble's actually a decent place to start for looking at "Why Project X instead of SETI"? Hubble has scientists going to bat for it. Lots of astronomers and astrophysicists and, heck, probably even astrologers get publishable data from buying time on Hubble. When the annual funding scramble hits, Hubble has legions (and lobbyists) selling its case to NASA administrators and Congresscritters. Every grad student hoping to write their doctoral thesis from Hubble results will submit letters to Congress.

      Meanwhile, Hubble has public people power, too. Hubble's last servicing mission was an enormous pain in the butt for NASA, but all the roaring crowds demanding their awesome Hubble pics for another decade wouldn't let the plucky space telescope die with the shuttles. The usual nasty letters from fiscal conservatives decrying waste of taxes on crazY cOmmie SCience hipPIes instead of NATIONAL DEFENSE didn't stand a chance against the tidal wave of public support created by a reprint of the Pillars of Creation.

      SETI? "Nope, didn't see an ET today, either. Also, one of our grad students published a paper showing, in a very clever fashion, that we didn't find ET last year, either. Can I have another $10 million to survive?" That's harder to sell.

      Don't get me wrong, I like SETI. I'd like a warning to evacuate the cities before our new Zeta Reticulan Overlords show up. It's important. But without another Contact movie to help sell it, SETI doesn't have the academic backing, lobbyists, and star power of programs that produce flashier results.

  3. Joerg

    So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

    As well as Mars, Jupiter, Venus... no high quality uncensored pictures from nearby planets...

    ..and they can see planets that are hundreds to millions light years away ?

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge
      WTF?

      Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

      Unless a tinfoil hat got in the way, I really do not understand what you are getting at

      There are plenty high quality moon, Mars, Jupiter, Mercury, Venus pictures about and have been for decades. The resolution just gets higher and higher.

      1. Little Mouse

        Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

        Wtf indeed. For the Google Maps generation cm-level resolution is the expected norm.

        Joerg's argument may be flawed, but he does raise an interesting point though - Just what level of detail for the moon & planets is it possible to reach these days simply using earthbound (or low earth orbit) tech?

        1. cray74

          Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

          "Just what level of detail for the moon & planets is it possible to reach these days simply using earthbound (or low earth orbit) tech?"

          Answering specifically for one low Earth orbit telescope:

          The limits of Hubble are summarized in this BBC article, which includes best-resolution pictures of main belt asteroid Ceres and distant Pluto. Note that Ceres (diameter 1000km) has pixels in terms of kilometers, while Pluto is in the vicinity of hundreds of kilometers per pixel with lots of processing and multiple pictures to make the maps shown below.

          http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30746650

          I don't know what the latest and biggest Earth-bound scopes could accomplish, but they're not going to ogle Mars, let alone Pluto or an exoplanet, in the same detail as a nearby space probe.

    2. Ashton Black

      Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

      Well actually no, they can't "see" planets at those distances at all. They're inferring their existence by looking at the changes in the spectra of the stars they're orbiting. From this they can work out, or at minimum an educated guess of , the mass, temperature, orbital speeds and possibly even what the planet is primarily made of. You won't be seeing any pics anytime soon either. I've heard it described as like trying to see a candle right next to a 40kW searchlight from 1 mile away.

      1. Sweep

        Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_directly_imaged_exoplanets

    3. cray74

      Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

      "As well as Mars, Jupiter, Venus... no high quality uncensored pictures from nearby planets..."

      It is an interesting syndrome wherein a person not only refuses to look for information that's at their fingertips via Google** Image search, but then leaps to the conclusion that because they didn't see the information they didn't search for it thus doesn't exist.

      Databases of photos at meter resolution of Mars and the Moon are available online for free, as are the (over-meter scale) results from Galileo, Cassini, and other space probes. Since the 1970s-1980s, the attitude with sharing space probe has at least partly changed from "It belongs to the lead investigator, who gets first dibs on publishing results," to "Taxpayers funded these public works, so they get all the data." ESA, NASA, USGS, and other organizations thus have websites dedicated to specific missions and/or planets filled with all the raw and processed photos you could ask for.

      **Or Bing, or Yahoo!. I don't want to exclude any alternative search life choices.

    4. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: So they can see planets so far away but no high quality Moon pics ?

      "As well as Mars, Jupiter, Venus..."

      And none of Uranus? Uh hurr, uh hurr

      Signed

      B. BUTThead

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    par...ANAL?

    can it see Uranus?

    fnrr...fnrr

    1. Martin Budden
      Headmaster

      Re: par...ANAL?

      The para prefix can mean either "beside" (as in paramedic, a person who works alongside a medic) or "preventing" (as in parachute, a device for preventing falling). Therefore paranal could mean either beside the anus (indicating use of an alternative orifice) or preventing anal (I'll leave it up to you to interpret that one).

      Of course it could just refer to the mountain Cerro Paranal, but that's boring.

  5. HOW many?

    From twice to eight times 'Super Earths' or ...

    (or)... As we like to quietly describe them, 'Not a right lot like Earth after all thens'?

    Or put another way - if it can find 8x Earths it can find 9x & 10x Earths and where do you draw the line?

    2G doesn't feel so bad but you'd not want to experience 3G for very long. (<Sigh> Cue mobile device jokes).

    And yeah, OK that's cos QED we're evolved for 1G.

    But you get all sorts of odd pressure effects too, so life would be .....

    Cut to the chase here - Presumably its a fair bit more of a technical challenge but if you're going to all that trouble why not go the extra mile (or AU or whatever) and look for 1x Earth size alien Earths?

    1. twelvebore

      Re: From twice to eight times 'Super Earths' or ...

      Sorry, we didn't invent the term super-Earth, but others have run with it.

      Simplistically speaking a super-Earth is a planet that's thought to be rocky, but is significantly larger than Earth. If you look at our Solar system you have the rocky planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars), the Ice Giants (Neptune, Uranus) and the Gas Giants (Saturn, Jupiter). To first order these classes are distinguishable based on their measured density.

      NGTS is looking for rocky planets (as deduced from their measured density), but fundamentally is limited to finding planets that are ~2x Earth radius (ie. 8x Earth mass assuming Earth density).

      That's about the best that can be done from the ground. Finding 1x Earth radius / 1x Earth mass planets is really only possible from space, and that's ~100x more expensive. A small number have been found, but they are in short-period orbits, and unlikely to be habitable.

      If you're really looking for true analogs of our Earth (ie. a 1 Earth mass planet, in a 1 Earth year orbit about a 1 Sun mass G-class star), then the space missions mentioned here (Kepler, TESS) are not capable of detecting these. You will have to wait until PLATO flies in 2024, then wait maybe a decade after that for its findings to be verified.

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