European telescope searches for planets

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This artist's view shows the COROT satellite, consisting of a 30-centimetre space telescope to be launched in late 2006. Credit: CNES 2006 - D. Ducros.

A telescope designed to find earth-like planets outside our solar system was launched on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur Cosmodrome inside the country of Kazakhstan. The project, which is known as COROT or COnvection ROtation and planetary Transits, is led by the French.

"Our Corot satellite has been put into orbit today perfectly by a Soyuz rocket," said president of National French Space Studies Center, Yannick d’Escatha.

The telescope will remain in space for at least 2 years to hunt down and find other planets. The telescope will begin to first monitor the Milky Way. After approximately 150 days of monitoring, the telescope will then begin to watch the constellation Orion. Every 150 days the telescope is expected to monitor a new area of space.

The telescope will take images of light that a star puts off and then watch for the brightness of that star to dim, which usually means a planet has crossed in front of the star. Scientists hope to find at least 10-40 planets, and additional gas giants.

The COROT Telescope. Credit: CNES.

"These create a 'starquake' that sends ripples across the star’s surface, altering its brightness. The exact nature of the ripples allows astronomers to calculate the star’s precise mass, age and chemical composition," said a European Space Agency spokesman.

"Such planets would represent a new, as yet undiscovered, class of world that astronomers believe exists. With Corot, astronomers expect to find between 10-40 of them, together with tens of new gas giants," said a spokesman for the E.S.A..

The telescope contains a camera, equipment to communicate with the scientists, direction controls and temperature detection.

"Corot will be able to find extra-solar planets of all sizes and natures, contrary to what we can do from the ground at the moment. We expect to obtain a better vision of planet systems beyond the solar system, about the distribution of planet sizes. And finally, it will allow us to estimate the likelihood of there existing planets resembling the Earth in the neighbourhood of the sun or further away in the galaxy," said one researcher on the project, Claude Catala.

The telescope weighs nearly 1,500 pounds.