SA helps in exoplanet hunting

2011-03-09 07:02

Cape Town - South African astronomers are involved in the discovery and analysis of possible exoplanets several light years away.

Nasa recently announced that the Kepler telescope found several planets orbiting distant stars, suggesting that exoplanets are more common than previously thought. But analysis of these bodies is difficult and researchers from around the world are assisting in the analysis.

"After only four months of operation, the Kepler team announced the discovery of over 1 200 new candidate exoplanets - a lot of work will be required to follow up and be sure they really are planets since there are several ways that observational data from non-planetary systems could mimic those from planetary systems," SAAO astronomer Dr John Menzies told News24.

He said that the Southern African Large Telescope (Salt) in the Northern Cape province would be critical to the identification of exoplanets when it receives a spectrograph this year as well as the UK-operated superWASP and KELT from the US which are both based in Sutherland.

Gravitational microlensing is also used to find distant planets but requires long observations conducted by a collection of telescopes around the world.


"Sutherland is situated about half way between Australia and Chile, so is a vital node in the PLANET collaboration's observing programme; this collaboration has been operational since 1995.

"This technique finds planets that are significantly further away from their parent stars, and is the only ground-based method of finding earth-mass planets orbiting several astronomical units (distance of earth from Sun) from the parent star," said Menzies.

He would not rule out life being able to exist on planets that may be regarded as unsuitable for life as we understand it on Earth.

Recently, Nasa scientist Richard Hoover made a claim that alien microbe fossils were found in meteorites on Earth. The agency though, has distanced itself from the findings.

In December, Nasa has announced the discovery of a new bacteria that can grow and incorporate arsenic into its DNA.

"We have had this idea that life requires these six elements with no exceptions and here it turns out, well maybe there is an exception," said Ariel Anbar about the discovery.


"In simple terms, life as we understand it is carbon-based, and could exist wherever the ambient temperature allows water to exist in liquid form and the gravity to be sufficiently high to retain an atmosphere; so yes, it would be possible for it to exist on moons of planets," said Menzies.

He said that the hunt for exoplanets has been accelerated with the Kepler telescope and scientists focus on cooler stars as they were more likely candidates for life to exist.

"With the Kepler experiment, there will be a revolution in our knowledge of exoplanet statistics - in about 20 years just over 500 exoplanets have been found from the ground compared with over 1 200 in four months from Kepler."

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  • OP - 2011-03-09 07:49

    Isn't Sutherland in the WESTERN CAPE??

      Flinger - 2011-03-09 10:55

      No, its half way between Chile and Australia, that should be their new town welcome greeting as well!

  • Joy - 2011-03-09 08:24

    Why do we still waste our money on exploring other planets ... what will you do when you find another suitable planet? Spend our tax-dollars right HERE and stop wasting your money and ours.

      cr1t - 2011-03-09 12:52

      Should we go back to the dark ages to? The tax money spent on science is a fraction of the total spent by government compared to what is spent on the military so maybe you should call for peace on earth rather.

      Wollie - 2011-03-09 13:05

      Before you judge to quickly, first find out what benefits the US space program has made to humanity in general. A lot of the technology we now take for granted was originally developed for the Mercury and Apollo programs.

      renesongs - 2011-03-09 13:58

      We need to find out which Planet the ANC are living on so we can help them come down to earth.

      Lawson - 2011-03-10 07:46

      Even in the worst economic times we should still look ahead to the future, imagine if someone said years ago why invest in education, leave the brats in the fields what measurable progress would we have today....

      Byron - 2011-03-11 16:06

      wow joy, why kick up so much dust just because you can't afford another Mc Donalds burger... it's not like your the only one paying taxes, mabey it's a good thing that they're looking for another planet, so we can get rid of the anc and stingy people like you!

  • BigMoose - 2011-03-09 08:36

    Don't bother looking for racist aliens. The ANC is already here.

  • liezelb - 2011-03-09 20:06

    Actually it's in the Northern Cape. ;-)

  • steve - 2011-03-14 17:35

    Bill Watterson said "I sometimes think the only evidence for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, is the fact that none of it has tried to contact us" ........suppose you can interpret that as you like.

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