Astronomers at Queen's University, Belfast, are spending years looking at one spot in the galaxy. They are searching for a planet similar to Earth.
The Northern Ireland scientists have teamed up with the Universities of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Harvard and INAF-TNG (the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics). The groups plan to build an instrument to probe flickers of light that hint to a planet circling a star.
The HARPS-N instrument may be able to identify whether these planets have water, are similar to Earth or are composed of solid iron. The candidates would be identified by NASA's Kepler space probe.
HARPS stands for High Accuracy Radial-velocity Planet Searcher. The 'N' designates that it is in the Northern Hemisphere. There is another HARPS in Chile.
The Kepler probe has continually taken images of a single area in the constellation of Cygnus. Of the thousands of stars visible 1,200 show promising signs of supporting planetary systems.
"Kepler looks for tiny tell-tale dimmings in the light of stars that occur when orbiting planets pass in front of them," said QUB astronomer Professor Don Pollacco.
“However, to be able to understand what kind of worlds these planets are, the light has to be subjected to more detailed examination with the HARPS-N instrument.”
Dr. Ken Rice of the University of Edinburgh said, “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.”
The HARPS-N team will build and use the instrument in the Italian 3.5-metre Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands.