Professor Ian Morison discusses one of the hottest topics in astronomy: detecting other solar systems. The methods by which this has been achieved so far have yet to detect an earth-like planet, but already a miniature version of our solar system has been discovered.
How do these discoveries affect the prospects for life elsewhere?
Gresham Professor of Astronomy Ian Morison made his first telescope at the age of 12 with lenses given to him by his optician. Having studied Physics, Maths and Astronomy at Oxford, he became a radio astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory and teaches Astronomy and Cosmology at the University of Manchester.
Over 25 years he has also taught Observational Astronomy to many hundreds of adult students in the North West of England. An active amateur optical astronomer, he is a council member and past president of the Society for Popular Astronomy in the United Kingdom.
At Jodrell Bank he was a designer of the 217 KM MERLIN array and has coordinated the Project Phoenix SETI Observations using the Lovell Radio Telescope. He contributes astronomy articles and reviews for New Scientist and Astronomy Now, and produces a monthly sky guide on the Observatory's website.
Ian Morison describes new planet-detecting astronomical techniques such as "giant occulting screens" and groups of infrared satellite telescopes. Astronomers plan to use these techniques to detect life-supporting atmospheres on other planets.
Planet that orbits a star other than the Sun. The existence of extrasolar planets, many light-years from Earth, was confirmed in 1992 with the detection of three bodies circling a pulsar. The first planet revolving around a more sunlike star, 51 Pegasi, was reported in 1995. Over 200 stars with one or more planets are known. Current detection methods, based on the planets' gravitational effects on the stars they orbit, have revealed only planets much more massive than Earth; some are several times the size of Jupiter. A number of them have highly elliptical orbits, and many are closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun. These findings have raised questions regarding astronomers' ideas of how Earth's solar system formed and how typical it is.