New research into habitable solar systems – Niels Bohr Institute - University of Copenhagen

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18 February 2009

New research into habitable solar systems

How was our solar systems formed and are there other similar solar systems? Is it a complete coincidence that there exist particular astrophysical conditions so that solid, water rich, habitable planets were formed in our solar system? – or is it a widespread consequence of the formation of planet systems throughout the universe? This is what a new research centre at the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the Niels Bohr Institute will investigate.

Perhaps the earth is the only place in the universe where there is intelligent life – or life at all. It is a fundamental question, that occupies us as humans, but it is a difficult challenge for science to find an answer to it. “We have today small pieces of knowledge from individual branches of science. But in order to really understand how solid, terrestrial and water rich planets formed and developed, we will gather an interdisciplinary team of researchers which consists of ‘space geologists’, astrophysicists and astronomers,” explains Associate professor Martin Bizzarro, who will be the leader of the new research centre, the Center for Origin and Evolution of Planetary Systems.

Polished section of the Esquel pallasite. Pallasites
are meteorites composed of metal and olivine
crystals, and believed to be fragments originating
from the core-mantle region of differentiated
asteroids that existed during the first few million
years of the birth of our solar system. Photo:
Henning Haack,  National History Museum of Denmark

Earthbound space geology
Martin Bizzarro is a geologist and came to Denmark from Canada five years ago to work at the Natural History Museum of Denmark (Geological Museum). “One of the world’s best collections of meteorites is found here and I began to research in cosmo-chemistry, that is to say, to study the chemical composition of the meteorites”, he explains.

Meteorites are one of the cornerstones for researching the very early history of the solar system. Meteorites are the stones that routinely fall down to earth from space. They are the remains of the enormous dust clouds, which gathered and formed the planets and they contain clues from the birth of the solar system.

“We will try to determine what conditions were present during the formation – whether, for example, there were very massive stars in the vicinity that died in supernova explosions and flung out enormous clouds of material, which became the basic ingredients for the solid planets. The chemical components can help reveal this”, explains Martin Bizzarro.

He has had a completely new, ultra clean, dust free laboratory built for the research, where it is always 20 degrees and where the humidity is at 40 percent. The super modern laboratory has two new mass spectrometers, which can measure isotopes and their relative proportion as well date the meteorites with unmatched precision. The laboratory has cost 12 million kroner, he explains. The money has come from the University of Copenhagen’s Programme of Excellence and the Danish Natural Science Research Council, which contributed 22 million kroner to planet research and cosmo-chemistry a year ago. The Danish National Research Foundation has now contributed 34 million kroner to the new centre, where 15-20 new research positions will be created at the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the Niels Bohr Institute, where the expertise in astronomy and astrophysics is found.

Distant space observations
Uffe Gråe Jørgensen is an astronomer at the Niels Bohr Institute and he is responsible for a much less earthbound part of the research – he observes exoplanets in distant solar systems in the Milky Way. He is looking forward to the work ahead very much: The big, new grants mean that we can get much better equipment for a series of new telescopes, that are being developed. In addition, M.Sc. students, PhD. students and researchers will be employed to work with the large quantities of data we will be collecting”.


With the new centre the astronomers will
be able to intensify the hunt for terrestrial
planets like the one discovered in 2005
by an international group with Uffe Gråe
Jørgensen, which was the first one ever
to be discovered. Artist impression: ESA

In 2005 an international group including Uffe Gråe Jørgensen were the first in the world to discover a terrestrial planet outside our solar system. In recent years approximately 400 planets have been discovered, but they are almost all gaseous planets like Saturn and Jupiter. Only a few of them are solid planets like the earth and lie in a inhabitable zone, where there is potential for life.

With the new telescopes and advanced equipment Uffe Gråe and the new research group will be able to proceed very systematically in their search after terrestrial exoplanets.

Astrophysical models
All that the astronomers observe in the universe about the actual conditions surrounding exoplanets and all that the geologists discover with cosmo-chemical investigations of meteorites will be used in the computer models of planet formation, which is what professor Åke Nordlund at the Niels Bohr Institute is working with. It is only now, that the processing capability of the largest supercomputers is great enough to create realistic models of planet formation. The calculations are carried out by linking hundreds of computers together with each working on its own part of the model.

“It will be one of the world ‘s leading research centres for planet research”, explains Martin Bizzarro, who is confident that in five years we will know much more about how solar systems such as ours and planets with potential life form.