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Space mission looking for Earth-like planets



AM - Thursday, 28 December , 2006 08:18:00

Reporter: Anne Barker

PETER CAVE: A multinational space mission launched in Kazakhstan overnight is the first of its kind to look specifically for Earth-like planets outside the solar system.

COROT will monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars, looking for the characteristic twinkle caused whenever a planet passes in front of a star.

The mission is led by the French Space Agency, with cooperation from the European Space Agency, Brazil, and scientists from throughout Europe.

Anne Barker reports.

ANNE BARKER: The Russian-built Soyuz rocket blasted off from Kazakhstan's Baikonur Cosmodrome. It's carrying a 650-kilogram satellite that'll spend two and a half years in orbit, nearly 900 kilometres above the Earth.

But it's a tiny telescope onboard that'll make or break this mission. The 27-centimetre device, along with a sophisticated camera, will look at tens of thousands of stars outside the solar system and measure minute changes in their brightness, to detectplanets orbiting around them.

The project's Assistant Director, Philippe Goudy, from France's National Space Agency CNES, says it's a bit like watching an eclipse.

PHILIPPE GOUDY: Actually, you don't see the planet itself, but you see its effect on the light of the star as the planet passes between the star and the Earth.

ANNE BARKER: So it's the stars you'll be looking at more than the planets?

PHILIPPE GOUDY: Yes. It is close to impossible to see the planet, because a star is big and very bright and the planet is small and dark.

ANNE BARKER: Scientists have already discovered 200 exoplanets, as they're called, using ground-based telescopes. But like the planet Jupiter, all are made mostly of gas.

Philippe Goudy says the COROT project is the first mission to search for planets like Earth that could potentially support life.

PHILIPPE GOUDY: We have been able so far to detect large planets, like five, six times the diameter of the Earth. We know, or we suspect there are smaller planets, Earth-like planets, and those are the onesthat we will be trying to detect with COROT.

ANNE BARKER: And would you be able to learn anything about possible life on those planets?

PHILIPPE GOUDY: This is still probably too soon to say. Life requires a lot of conditions, but we know that it requires a planet to be solid,like the Earth, and not large gaseous like Jupiter. It requires to be not too close from the sun, but not too far from its star.

Probably COROT will not be able to detect life, but it will be able to tell whether they are in position that are more probable to carry life.

ANNE BARKER: COROT's project scientist, Malcolm Fridlund, from the European Space Agency, believes this mission is the first step in a whole new phase of astronomical research.

MALCOLM FRIDLUND: It will start changing mankind's view of itself, the context that we see ourselves in, because it will start to find out what kind of a world we live on -are weunique, or are we not, and then of course the follow-up of that is to find out whether there's life somewhere else.

So it's a long road that we are setting off on, but we are starting on the road, and that's what makes me so excited about this.

PETER CAVE: Dr Malcolm Fridlund from the European Space Agency. Our reporter was Anne Barker.



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