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Chinese astronomers in Antarctica search for planets

Updated: 2012-08-29 10:52
( Xinhua)

BEIJING - Chinese astronomers are actively searching for Earth-like planets using survey instruments in Antarctica, as they believe efforts to seek an extra-solar planet that may sustain life will soon be paid back.

"It's highly possible that human beings might find such a planet in the coming few years," said Wang Lifan, a researcher at the Purple Mountain Observatory and director of the Chinese Center for Antarctic Astronomy.

"Such planets likely exist in the Milky Way, with a possible distance of thousands of light years from us," Wang said.

Chinese astronomers installed the first of three Antarctic Survey Telescopes (AST3-1) at Dome Argus, located at the highest elevation on the Antarctic continent, at the beginning of the year. One of its primary missions is to search for extra-solar planets suitable for life.

"We will send people there to retrieve observation data next spring. I hope we can find some likely candidates. It's hard to say precisely how many, but I hope there are no less than 10," Wang said.

Chinese astronomers now rely on an Iridium satellite phone to give orders to and receive data from their survey instruments in Antarctica, which only allows them to send and receive a small amount of data at a time.

However, Wang revealed that his team is considering building a supercomputer system in Antarctica. "The new system could help us analyze the massive amounts of data gathered at the site and transmit small amounts of processed data back via satellite."

Astronomers around the world have been looking for Earth-like planets for years, a feat that has proven difficult, as it would require finding a planet with a very specific size, temperature and atmosphere.

"So far, humans have yet to find an exact twin of the Earth," Wang said.

"We search through a wide range of main sequence stars, mainly sun-like stars, and then look for planets within a suitable distance around them. Stars that are smaller and darker than the sun, such as dwarfs, are also in our survey scope," he said.

"If the stars are particularly large, they are inclined to evolve faster. Some will explode soon, and their planets will go missing after the explosion," he added.

Scientists have been trying to find signs of life in the universe by looking for habitable planets first.  "We know too little about life. Maybe there are new forms of life that do not need exactly the same environment as we have on Earth. Some can survive in very harsh environments,"  Wang said.

The second AST3 will be installed in Antarctica between late 2013 and early 2014, while the third one will be installed between late 2014 and early 2015.

"These telescopes are expected to help us find at least 100 sun-like stars. We will work with Australian scientists to further study the movement of the stars to calculate their size," Wang said.

Chinese scientists are also planning to set up an Antarctic observatory to further boost their research and broaden the search for habitable planets. If approved and included in the 12th Five-Year Plan, the observatory should go into operation by 2020.

"Antarctica has the best conditions on Earth for astronomical observation, as it has very flat ground, a transparent atmosphere and little turbulence. The ground-based telescopes here will bring us precious information from the universe,"  he said.