In publica commoda

Press release: Is there life on planets outside of our solar system?

Nr. 239/2011 - 10.11.2011

Göttingen astrophysicist awarded “ERC Starting Grant”

(pug) Prof. Ansgar Reiners, astrophysicist at Göttingen University, has received a “ERC Starting Grant” for his pioneering basic research in the field of planet searching. The European Research Council (ERC) is the sponsor of this acclaimed grant. The amount awarded to the project is € 1.4 million for a term of five years.

The funding for pioneering work in fundamental science is one of the European Union’s main funding schemes. In 2007, the ERC was established for the purpose of supporting highly talented researchers involved in particularly creative work. Prof. Reiners intends to use the grant money to continue pursuing his research project “Development of new wavelength standards for the search of habitable planets”. The aim of his project is to develop standards to aid the search for habitable planets outside our solar system.

Unlike other planets within our solar system, the Earth meets two essential criteria for life as we know it to thrive. Compared to gas planets like Saturn and Jupiter, the Earth has a solid outer crust. Moreover, it is located at a distance to the sun where temperature permits the existence of seas and oceans, in other words, “liquid” water. Planets that meet these criteria are termed “habitable”; meaning that, in principle, life similar to that on Earth could develop on them. To date, only very few planets have been discovered which satisfy the “habitability” criteria.

In their quest for habitable planets, astrophysicists start to concentrate on stars that are very nearby. Most of these stars are cooler than our sun and the “habitable” planets in these stellar systems have a smaller distance to their central star. Whereas the Earth takes a year to revolve around the sun, the time it takes for such planets to orbit their star is just a few days. To be able to discover planets outside our solar system, periodic changes in the starlight will be investigated – such variations are generated by the star itself moving whilst being orbited by one of its planets. These investigations require ultra-precise light sources that can be used as reference points to allow the measurement of light wavelengths. Currently, however, such calibration sources are not available for very cold stars. The development of these light sources is the aim of Prof. Reiners’ project. Over the next five years, the Institute for Astrophysics’ laboratory in Göttingen will work on drafting standards that will enable the search for habitable planets.

Ansgar Reiners, born in 1973, studied physics in Heidelberg, Germany and Uppsala, Sweden. In 2003, he earned his doctorate at the University of Hamburg and then became a fellow within an EU research programme at the University of California, Berkeley. Since 2007, Ansgar Reiners has headed the Emmy Noether Research Group at the Institute for Astrophysics of the University of Göttingen. As holder of a Heisenberg professorship funded by the DFG (German Research Foundation), Prof. Reiners has been teaching and researching at the Institute for Astrophysics since June 2011. He has already received numerable awards, among others, the 2007 Ludwig Biermann Award and Promotion Prize from the German Astronomic Society and the DFG’s Heinz Maier Leibnitz Prize in 2010.

Contact address:
Professor Ansgar Reiners
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen
Faculty of Physics – Institute for Astrophysics
Friedrich-Hund-Platz 1, 37077 Göttingen
Phone (0551) 39-13825, Fax (0551) 39-5043