A team of researchers at the University of Birmingham are in a race to find new planets outside our solar system.
PhD students Gemma Whittaker and Vinothini Sangaralingam, led by lecturer Dr Ian Stevens, are one of a dozen UK groups who are competing to uncover the next Mars or Jupiter.
Their dream is to find an Earth-like planet where life exists.
“Are we alone in this universe? That’s what everyone wants to answer,” said Mrs Sangaralingam, aged 26, who is from India and came to Birmingham specifically for the research project.
“People have discovered planets like Saturn and Neptune but nothing like Earth. That’s what we’re hoping to find.
“I believe there is life on other planets. It’s just a matter of finding it.”
The team uses thousands of photographs taken by one of two STEREO (Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory) space buses which trail ahead and behind the Earth’s orbit.
They study the light given off the myriad of stars which appear in the photographs with a view to spotting possible eclipses. If the flare from one of the stars dims one day, it could be the result of a celestial body.
After three years of research, the Birmingham researchers have yet to discover an actual planet, but do have a list of about 8,000 candidates.
Now comes the painstaking process of narrowing down the search as many of those thousands will simply be other stars or asteroids.
Added to their mammoth task is the constant fear that someone else will get there first – a fear heightened by the top secret nature of some of the missions.
“It’s a hugely competitive field. We’re not the only ones out there,” explained Dr Stevens, part of the university’s Astrophysics and Space Research Group.
“It’s growing at an exponential rate.
“Obviously that makes it exciting but it’s scary as well. There’s always a chance that some other clever person will leapfrog you and get there first.”
The Birmingham team received news of Nasa’s new Kepler mission with mixed feelings. The spacecraft was launched in March last year with the purpose to find planets of a similar size and structure to the Earth.
While yet to achieve its ultimate aim, in just six weeks the mission did reveal five previously unknown planets – a phenomenal rate of discovery.
“You do get that sinking feeling when you hear someone else has discovered another planet,” said Ms Whittaker, aged 27, who moved to Birmingham from Scotland. She analyses the chemical analysis of stars.
“But it’s also good because every time a new discovery is made, they publish a paper outlining their methods and that can give you ideas about how to go forward.”
As of now, there are 473 known extra-solar planets.
The university team hope to add to that list within the next year.
“We will find another planet. It’s just a matter of time,” added Mrs Sangaralingam.