19 June 2017

Results of public observational campaign Red Dots will be published in real time.

University of Hertfordshire astronomers Dr Mikko Tuomi and Professor Hugh Jones are part of an international team of European and South American astronomers, launching an observational campaign to discover extra-solar planets - or exoplanets - orbiting three of the nearest stars to the Sun.

The results of the campaign named Red Dots will be published in real time at the campaign website and communicated through social media.

Discovering new planets

In 2016 the same team was responsible for the detection of Proxima b, the nearest exoplanet to the Solar System, orbiting the star Proxima Centauri.

Dr Tuomi explained: “When Guillem Anglada-Escudé, the leader of the Red Dots campaign was working in Hatfield, I discovered the first evidence for Proxima b. Now, the plan is more ambitious – we aim at monitoring three stars, Proxima Centauri, Barnard's star, and Ross 154, continuously over a period of nearly four months. This will enable us to detect virtually all Earth-sized planets orbiting them on close-in orbits – or rule out their existence.”

“We hope that the campaign will obtain data from at least a dozen observatories so that we will have continuous monitoring of these neighbouring stars. The telescopes will include those of our Bayfordbury Observatory at the University of Hertfordshire. We urge anyone with suitable resources to join in.” said Professor Hugh Jones.

The three stars targeted by the campaign, are all very nearby red dwarf stars that are thought, on average, to have at least three planets orbiting them. “This means we have a reasonably high chance of success in detecting new planets orbiting these stars. But it is also possible that we find nothing.” said Dr Tuomi. “The worst-case scenario is that we 'only' learn a great deal about the activity and behaviour of such red dwarf stars that will help us detect planets orbiting them in the future.”

During the last year, two other nearby planetary systems beyond our Solar System were discovered orbiting red dwarf stars.

“The nearest exoplanet Proxima b was naturally an important discovery, but the seven-planet system recently detected around the red dwarf Trappist-1 demonstrates that such stars can have highly complex systems of planets orbiting them. The most interesting feature is, that such planets could even be hosts to life.” said Dr Tuomi.

Red Dots campaign

The Red Dots campaign has now been launched. The journey the astronomers undertake over the next four months will be communicated to the public in real time.

Dr Tuomi, responsible for data analysis and its interpretation within the project, will publish regular “live science updates” explaining findings as they appear via social media.

“We will do our best to communicate the results as we get them. In this way, anyone can see and contribute to how modern astronomy is conducted in real time. Stay posted!”

The project was part funded by the United Kingdom Science and Technology Facilities Council through its support for the European Southern Observatory and a grant for astrophysics research to the University of Hertfordshire.