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Astronomers are keen to find a rocky, Earth-like planet revolving around a Sun-like star; it’s the most likely place to find life as we know it. But the technologies used to find such planets, which work by analyzing starlight, haven’t been up to the task. Now researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have adapted a relatively young laser technology to discern the once undetectably faint gravitational influence such planets exert on their home stars’ light output.

Their system increases the precision of spectrographs–optics used to analyze light from distant stars–by a hundred times, and it should make it possible to detect Earth-like planets. This May, Harvard senior lecturer Ronald Walsworth and postdoc Chih-Hao Li will be installing the system at the Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mount Hopkins, in Arizona.

If the Harvard technique holds up in use on actual telescopes, it could be “a huge breakthrough” in the search for Earth-like planets, which will help scientists “understand how our own Earth came to be” and search for life beyond our planet, says Sara Seager, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at MIT.

To date, astronomers have discovered nearly 300 planets, called exoplanets, outside our own solar system. For example, just last month, astronomers at NASA announced that the Hubble Space Telescope had detected evidence of water and an organic molecule on a planet 63 light years away. But that planet is gaseous and searingly hot; indeed, none of the exoplanets yet found are Earth-like.

As a planet orbits around its star, its gravitational pull “causes the star to wiggle back and forth,” says George Ricker, a planetary scientist at MIT. Due to the Doppler effect, this tiny change in the star’s motion causes tiny changes in the wavelengths of the starlight that reaches us. Astronomers use an optical tool called a spectrograph to split starlight gathered by telescopes into its component wavelengths. The spectrum of light from a star varies with the period of any orbiting planets, shifting the spectrograph to the blue end and then the red.

The bigger the planet, the easier it is to measure these effects. Large planets, called hot Jupiters because of their resemblance to the one in our solar system, can affect the motion of their stars by tens of centimeters per second. But the effects of small planets like Earth on the motions of their stars are much more subtle, on the order of a centimeter per second, and the shifts in wavelength are correspondingly tiny. “Current techniques have reached a wall at one meter per second,” says Gordon Walker, an emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of British Columbia.

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Credit: Chih-Hao Li, Center for Astrophysics

Tagged: Communications, lasers, spectroscopy, extraterrestrial life, astronomy

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