The Daily Californian Online

Scientists to Scour the Sky In Search of Another Earth

By Arielle Turner
Contributing Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009
Category: News > University > Research and Ideas

The search for another Earth has begun.

A new telescope designed to detect Earth-like planets, which scientists expect will be operational by October, is being installed by researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz at the Lick Observatory just east of San Jose.

The project cost $10 million and has been in progress since 2002. About $6.8 million came from the 2002 federal budget through the U.S. Naval Observatory.

"We told the Navy we would be helping them with their astronomy efforts, and they were very happy about that," said Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley astronomy professor leading the project.

NASA provided $2 million and Gloria and Ken Levy gave almost $1 million.

The spectrometer and telescope were designed by scientists at UC Santa Cruz.

The Automated Planet Finder Telescope will be used to discover rocky planets similar in mass to Earth. Marcy said scientists hope to find planets with intelligent, technologically capable life.

"That's exactly what I think is interesting to so many people," Marcy said. "We humans don't know whether we are alone or whether we have kindred spirits out there among the stars."

In order to find these planets, scientists will measure the speed at which stars are moving based on the light they emit.

The scientists will then use this information to determine how much stars are being affected by the gravitational pull of their orbiting planets. Scientists can then determine the mass of the planets with this information.

"The more massive the planet, the larger the velocity of the star," said Debra Fischer, a professor of astronomy at San Francisco State University who is working with Marcy.

Jupiter, which is 317 times the mass of Earth, pulls the sun toward it at about 11.7 meters per second. In comparison, the Earth only pulls the sun at about 10 centimeters per second.

Current measurements of planets of unknown mass are only accurate within one meter per second. With this telescope, scientists will be able to monitor stars every night and average the results to increase the accuracy of measurements.

With the improved accuracy, scientists hope to better identify planets whose masses are similar to that of Earth.

If Marcy's team does find planets similar to Earth, the next step will be to set up a radio telescope to pick up radio or television transmissions emitted by the planets in attempt to locate intelligent life.

"Our television transmissions from the 1950s have been traveling out into space. 'I Love Lucy' is 50 light years away from us in all directions. Any other species out there who have radio telescopes can pick it up immediately, and that would convince them that there's no intelligent life on Earth," Marcy joked.

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