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Returning researcher brings home a quest for cosmic understanding.
To date, more than 3700 exoplanets have been discovered, mostly by NASA’s Kepler space telescope and K2 missions. Other projects of note, smaller in scale, include HARPS and WASP. Now, the small Arabian Gulf state of Qatar—wanting to participate in the global search—launched its own program, the Qatar Exoplanet Survey (QES) in 2010 to probe the skies for exoplanets.
Exoplanets, also known as extrasolar planets, are planets orbiting a star other than our sun. Those found within the “habitable zone” of their mother star may be able to support life. Scattered abundantly throughout the observable universe, there are many reasons why we may want to search for them. One is inherent to human psychology; a realization of our potential cosmic loneliness. Another is the search for an escape route from a future Earth whose resources may be utterly depleted or it may be the drive to understand how the universe came to be, and where we come from that fuels this hunt across the nightly skies.
The QES project was founded by Khalid Al-Subai, who returned to Qatar after gaining a doctorate in astronomy in the United Kingdom. He gathered the funds and connections to use his expertise for an exoplanet search venture at home.
But what motivates a small Gulf state with a soaring fossil-fuel-based economy to support astronomical research?
“It seems to me that the countries of the Gulf and also of all the Middle East have finally grasped the importance of investing in scientific research in a general way and in astronomy and space science in particular, given the inestimable benefits that this generates in terms of development,” says Benkhaldoun Zouhair, president of the Moroccan National Committee for Astronomy (MNCA).
Andrew Cameron, a lead scientist on the QES project and an astronomy professor at the University of St. Andrews agrees saying that “funding [by the Qatar National Research Foundation] of blue-skies science projects is always worthwhile in terms of inspiring new generations of scientists and motivating powerful new ways of extracting knowledge from very large datasets. The benefits are practical as well as philosophically inspiring.”
The QES project uses a space-probing method, known as transit, to detect new exoplanets through its remotely located telescopes in New Mexico (USA), Tenerife (Spain) and Urumqi (China). Its principle is continuous recording of light in the sky. If a planet traverses the light path, a fluctuation is seen in the detected light. Unpredicted fluctuations point to undiscovered transiting objects.
Since its launch in 2010, the QES discovered six new exoplanets this way, which were named Qatar-1b, 2b, 3b, 4b, 5b and 6b. The planets are all from the “hot Jupiter” type – gas giants, scorching and inhospitable to the most basic life forms.
More sought-after are planets within a size range similar to Earth, and conditions that may harbor liquid water. But efforts to catalogue all types of exoplanets are valuable for a basic understanding of the cosmos.
Within the next two years, NASA’s intensive exoplanet search project TESS, planned for launch in March 2018, is expected to discover most of the remaining exoplanets of the hot Jupiter type (at least 3000 more) in the range of brightness and transit depth accessible to QES. TESS has the advantage of its telescopes being in space, achieving better signal and scope than telescopes on Earth. However, Cameron is confident that smaller-scale, land-based projects like WASP and QES will fill a vital new niche.
“Once that happens,” he says, “there will be an important new role for projects like QES in continuing to monitor the transits after TESS has moved on to different survey fields. It’s important to establish precise predictions of when transits will happen for years into the future.”
With a lot more to discover, and funding being no object, Qatar’s telescopes are likely to remain pointed skyward for the next few years. The focus on astronomy in particular may be more than just a development in the transition towards a knowledge-based and sustainable economy, but also a revival of historical tradition and heritage in the Arab region.
In neighboring UAE, the development of a space program, which includes various space satellite projects and the Emirates Mars Mission, is further testament to that.