MISSOULA, Mont. - After less than a year, a telescope used by the University of Montana is finding planets around distant stars that could be similar to our own. The MINERVA Project went into operation in May and has already been making headlines.
UM undergraduate students participate in searching for planets under the guidance of Dr. Nate McCrady. MINERVA is more of a scouting mission, says McCrady. It looks for the signature of planets orbiting distant stars, and the most interesting cases will be investigated by the world's biggest and best new telescopes in years to come.
In 2015 MINERVA helped scientists study a planet orbiting a white dwarf star for the first time. White dwarf stars are the size of a small planet, and in this case it's slowly ripping the nearby planet apart with its intense heat and gravitational pull.
The telescopes also helped study a star that behaved so unusually that some have proposed it could be a massive structure created by intelligent life. The "alien megastructure" theory became a sensation with media around the world. The scientific community believes that with more research on this star, another explanation will surface that doesn't involve extraterrestrials.
MINERVA comprises four telescopes funded by four universities -- UM, Penn State, Harvard and the University of New South Wales in Australia. The telescopes are located together at Mt. Hopkins, Arizona, near Tucson.
"We can see more of the sky from down there (closer to the equator)," says McCrady.
Missoula's numerous cloudy days and occasionally nasty winter weather keep most astronomy observations at UM fairly limited. Luckily, the MINERVA can operate on its own and its data can be accessed from the comfort of McCrady's lab.
MINERVA finds planets around other stars using two main methods, both using the star's own light. The telescope can measure how a star "wobbles" in response to planets moving around it. The second method relies on looking at the star long enough for a planet to cross in between the star and the telescope. This "transit method" looks for stars that don't shine as bright at regular intervals; like from a planet orbiting around it. These methods can determine how big the planet is, where it orbits and if it's a rocky planet like Earth and Mars or a planet made of gasses like Jupiter and Saturn.
McCrady wants to find those rocky planets in orbits that could support liquid water, what many scientists believe is essential to have in order for another planet to have life like we have on earth.
"It really gets into big questions that people have philosophized over for centuries," says McCrady. "We're finding that rocky planets that could be similar to Earth are abundant, and that brings up the next question then. Is there life out there? Are there other beings on those worlds (that we find) that are pondering the same question? It's fascinating to think about."