Scottish Scientists Granted £250K To Build Alien Detection Laser

20/01/2014 11:42 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 21:01 GMT
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center/Flickr
This graphic depicts HD 189733b, the first exoplanet caught passing in front of its parent star in X-rays. As described in our press release , NASA?s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency?s XMM Newton Observatory have been used to observe a dip in X-ray intensity as HD 189733b transits its parent star. The main figure is an artist?s impression showing the HD 189733 system, containing a Sun-like star orbited by HD 189733b, an exoplanet about the size of Jupiter. This ?hot Jupiter? is over 30 times closer to its star than Earth is to the Sun and goes around the star once every 2.2 days, as determined from previous observations. Also in the illustration is a faint red companion star, which was detected for the first time in X-rays with these observations. This star orbits the main star about once every 3,200 years. The inset contains the Chandra image of HD 189733. The source in the middle is the main star and the source in the lower right is the faint companion star. The source at the bottom of the image is a background object not contained in the HD 189733 system. The exoplanet itself cannot be seen in the Chandra image, as the transits involve measuring small decreases in X-ray emission from the main star. The authors estimate that the percentage decrease in X-ray light during the transits is about three times greater than the corresponding decrease in optical light. This tells them that the region blocking X-rays from the star is substantially larger than the region blocking optical light from the star, helping to determine the size of the planet's atmosphere. The extended atmosphere implied by these results is shown by the light blue color around the planet. Recent observations of HD 189733b with the Hubble Space Telescope have confirmed that the lower atmosphere of the planet has a deep blue color, due to the preferential scattering of blue light by silicate particles in its atmosphere. For about a decade astronomers have known that ultraviolet and X-ray radiation from the main star in HD 189733 are evaporating the atmosphere of its closely orbiting planet over time. The authors of the new study estimate that HD 189733b is losing between 100 million and 600 million kilograms per second. This rate is about 25% to 65% higher than it would be if the planet's atmosphere were not extended. At a distance of just 63 light years, HD 189733b is the closest hot Jupiter to Earth, which makes it a prime target for astronomers who want to learn more about this type of exoplanet and the atmosphere around it. Chandra was used to make observations of six transits by HD 189733b and the team also used archival data from XMM-Newton for one transit. These results are available online and will appear in the August 10th issue of The Astrophysical Journal. Read entire caption/view more images: <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/K. Poppenhaeger et al; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M. Weiss Caption credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Read more about Chandra: <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> p.s. You can see all of our Chandra photos in the Chandra Group in Flickr at: <a href=""></a> We'd love to have you as a member! _____________________________________________ These official NASA photographs are being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photographs. The photographs may not be used in materials, advertisements, products, or promotions that in any way suggest approval or endorsement by NASA. All Images used must be credited. For information on usage rights please visit: <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>

A team of Scottish scientists have been awarded a grant of £250,000 to build an alien detector.

Sploid alerts us to the work of Professor Derryck Reid, who is head of optics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Reid and his team are building a infrared laser device which is designed specifically to search for small, Earth-like planets around alien stars.

If built, the laser will be fitted to the proposed ESO European Extremely Large Telescope, which would be the most powerful on Earth when constructed atop a mountain in Chile. The £1 billion telescope is currently held up in the Brazilian parliament, but will likely soon go ahead.

The grant from the UK Science and Technologies Funding Counci isn't enough for Reid and team to build the entire instrument, but will help them explore the technology needed for a proof-of-concept.

Reid believes the 'comb laser' his team is working on would allow astronomers to hunt for planets with a far greater degree of accuracy than ever before. Such worlds are too far away to 'see' with a normal telescope, but by analysing how light from distant stars changes over time (as planets pass in front of them) it is possible to detect worlds - and even understand what they're like.

"Current technology is very good but this is a new technology that will help us in the search for new Earth-sized planets," he told the Scotsman.

More than 1,000 exoplanets have been discovered in recent years, thanks in large part to the Kepler space telescope.