Planet-hunting Missions Leave Earth

Astronomers all over Earth are searching for “exoplanets,” planets around other stars. The search missions are moving into space with instruments like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Kepler Telescope.

According to Jean Schneider of the Paris Observatory, astronomers have discovered 694 exoplanets. Over one hundred missions are in progress or planned!

American efforts abound. Launched on March 6, 2009, Kepler monitors 100,000 stars for planets. The telescope uses a simple photometer to detect a slight decrease in a star’s light as a planet eclipses it. The detection technique is called the “transit” method. Though the Kepler team has confirmed only 24 exoplanets, they’ve found 1234 exoplanet candidates that require further study. The numbers are exploding.

CubeSat, a mission designed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology students, will launch in 2012. The satellite is astonishingly small, only the size of a skateboard. Like Kepler, CubeSat uses the transit method.

The Lick Observatory’s Automated Planet Finder Telescope is atop Mount Hamilton in Northern California. Astronomers like Dr. Jay Anderson and Dr. Geoff Marcy have found 115 exoplanets since 1995. The new telescope will use robotics to automatically search for exoplanets. Unlike Kepler, this automated telescope will search using a Doppler technique. When a planet moves behind its star, the star moves slightly away from Earth because of gravity, and the movement changes the star’s light waves, just as a train’s pitch decreases as the train travels away from a listener.

The Hubble Space Telescope Team, the Spitzer Space Telescope Team, the Automated Astronomy Group of Tennessee State University, and Pennsylvania State University’s Pulsar Planet Detection Project are some of the American groups that have found exoplanets.

Internationally, the Gemini South Planet Finder is scheduled to begin observations in the Chilean Andes in 2012. The Anglo-Australian Planet Search at the University of New South Wales reported discovery of two exoplanets on May 1, 2011. The CoRot Project of France, Europe, and Brazil launched in 2006. The Telescope Fabra ROA Montsec in Spain observed an exoplanet on April 8, 2011.

So the global chase for extrasolar planets continues at a crazy pace.


Kepler Space Telescope Mission, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, Paris Observatory, Jean Schneider

CubeSat Project, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Automated Planet Finder Telescope, Lick Observatory

Hubble Space Telescope Team, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Spitzer Space Telescope Team, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Automated Astronomy Group of Tennessee State University

Astronomy Department, Pennsylvania State University

Gemini Planet Finder

Anglo-Australian Planet Search, University of New South Wales

The CoRot Project

Telescope Fabra ROA Montsec

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