Tennessee State University to Hunt Planets from Southern Hemisphere

National Science Foundataion grant funds new robotic telescopes in Chile

(August 8, 2005, Nashville, TN)--Dr. Marcus Shute, Tennessee State University Vice President for Research and Sponsored Programs, has announced TSU's receipt of a $684,000 National Science Foundation grant to expand its astronomical research program into the southern hemisphere. "For many years, TSU has operated several automatic or robotic telescopes located in the mountains of southern Arizona to conduct astronomical research," said Shute. "This new grant from NSF's Major Research Instrumentation program will fund the construction of three additional 0.8 meter (32-inch) automatic telescopes to extend our work to the skies of the southern hemisphere and hopefully lead to additional discoveries."

Principal investigator for the project is TSU astronomer Gregory Henry, who wrote the NSF funding proposal along with co-investigators Paul Butler and Mercedes Lopez-Morales, both at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "The new telescopes will be used to expand our search for planets around other stars," said Henry. "Two of them will be located at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory site in the Andes Mountains of Chile (shown here), while the third will join our other telescopes in Arizona." Henry has successfully used the existing telescopes, along with collaborators including Butler and Geoff Marcy at UC Berkeley who use giant telescopes on Hawaii and elsewhere, to find a large fraction of the known extrasolar planets. In November 1999, Henry discovered the first transiting Jupiter-mass extrasolar planet and used the eclipses that result when the planet crosses the face of its host star to make the first determination of an extrasolar planet's true mass, size, density, and composition. Last spring he discovered transits of a Saturn-mass planet that proved to be the first example of an extrasolar planet with a large, dense core.

Dr. Michael Busby, Director of TSU's Center of Excellence in Information Systems where the research will be performed, is excited about gaining access to southern hemisphere stars. "We have developed the capability to make extremely precise measurements of stars with our automatic telescopes in Arizona," said Busby, "but we have always been frustrated by not being able to observe a large fraction of the southern sky. When these new telescopes are completed in a couple of years, TSU will become the first HBCU (Historically Black University) to have its own astronomical observing site (above) in the southern hemisphere."

Henry explained the importance of the new telescopes. "We expect to discover additional cases of transiting (eclipsing) extrasolar planets. These are crucially important to learn more about the physical properties and formation histories of extrasolar planets," he said. "In addition, the telescopes will be used to assist the discovery of smaller and smaller mass planets. Ultimately, we want to know whether or not Earth-mass planets exist in orbit around other stars. This has obvious bearing on the possiblity for life elsewhere in the universe."

Astronomy research at Tennessee State University has been supported primarily by NASA, NSF, the University, and the state of Tennessee.