Beam me up, Michel: a Swiss professor leads the hunt for extraterrestrial life.

Author:Hancock, Julia
 
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Star Trek's Mr. Spock may never have been to Switzerland but he could well have made a friend in Michel Mayor, the Swiss astronomer at the forefront of the search for earth-like planets that could support life outside our solar system.

The 65-year-old scientist at the University of Geneva shot to fame some 12 years ago when he discovered 51 Pegasi B, the first planet outside the solar system (an exoplanet) orbiting a normal star--which means that the star and the planet were created at the same time.

This discovery was groundbreaking because, for the first time ever, the possibility of life on another planet became real instead of mere fodder for science fiction writers. However, Mayor says that 51 Pegasi B is too hot to host life.

Since his discovery, the search for extraterrestrial life, or at least planets capable of sustaining it, has truly begun.

Earlier this year, Mayor's Swiss team further challenged key competitors on a U.S.-based team, with the discovery of two possible contenders.

To support life as we know it, a planet must have a solid surface, water and an atmosphere. Mayor's two discoveries have generated the greatest public interest and excitement to date.

The two are believed to be rocky and, potentially, within a forgiving distance of the sun they orbit--not too far and not too close to red dwarf Gliese 581 (a weaker form of star than our sun).

But Mayor thinks one planet, Gliese C, could be too close to the sun, therefore too hot, while the other, Gleise D is more likely suitable to have liquid water its atmosphere is thick enough.

At the heart of Mayor's success is his team's use of the HARPS--High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet System at the European Space Agency's Southern Observatory in La Silla, Chile. Mayor describes the HARPS as, "a huge optical instrument that measures speed and variation in speed of stars, night after night".

By looking at its oscillation due to the gravitational pull--and with a few calculations--"you derive the period, mass and orbit of its planets," he tells Swiss News.

Mayor helped to develop the HARPS along with a French team in 2003. Rather than taking a cash payment for their invention, the Swiss team agreed to use the Observatory for 500 nights over the next five years.

The HARPS is kept under the vast telescope. The astronomers spend their time, not with their eye glued to the telescope as many would imagine, but down in the Observatory's basement monitoring...

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