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Solaris Project
April 26, 2012   
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Polish astronomy project Solaris was one of five research projects presented in Brussels in early March at an event marking five years of the European Research Council.

The Solaris project was billed as a scientific initiative that aims to open a new frontier in the hunt for extrasolar planets. The main aim of the project is to detect what are called circumbinary planets around a sample of up to 350 eclipsing binary stars using methods such as eclipse timing and precision radial velocities. Another goal is to study binary stars with an unprecedented precision to test the stellar structure and evolution models.

In order to achieve these goals the Polish researchers aim to establish a global network of four 0.5-meter robotic telescopes in Australia, South Africa and South America.

The project team consists of Prof. Maciej Konacki (primary investigator), Krzysztof Hełminiak (post doc), and Ph.D. students Stanisław Kozłowski, Milena Ratajczak and Piotr Sybilski.
The researchers are searching for circumbinary planets, which means planets that orbit two stars instead of one, utilizing a new method called eclipse timing.

The project is named after a 1961 science fiction novel by acclaimed Polish writer Stanisław Lem, who described a planetary system with two suns instead of one. The title of the book became an inspiration for the Polish research project, under which a network of modern, remote-controlled telescopes that allow 24-hour observations of the sky is being established.

The novel Solaris, first published in 1961, precedes Star Wars’ Tatooine planet as the first case of a circumbinary planet in popular culture. Solaris was turned into a movie twice, first by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky and more recently by Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh.

The study of double stars makes it possible to test the theory of stellar evolution with high precision. To test such theories, researchers need to make extremely accurate measurements of the basic properties of the stars, such as weight, size and chemical composition. Under the Solaris project, such measurements will be enabled by observations carried out by the network of four telescopes on three continents. Two of these telescopes are already operating in South Africa, and the other two will be launched in Australia and Argentina by the end of 2012. This will enable observations around the clock as part of the network. The telescopes will be activated automatically every night. After the end of each round of observations, computers will transmit data via the internet to Poland.

The European Research Council was established in 2007 under the European Union’s 7th Framework Program. It aims to stimulate, support and finance scientific research. The council’s fifth anniversary was marked in late February and early March with events that brought together researchers from major scientific organizations in the United States, China, Brazil, India and South Africa. The Polish astronomers, all of them hailing from the Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Toruń, were selected from 2,200 research teams whose work has been financed by the ERC.

To present the Solaris project and phenomena taking place in the planetary systems studied by the Polish astronomers, the researchers teamed up with the Platige Image company, which specializes in computer animations for the film industry. Several years ago, the studio was nominated for an Academy Award in the best animated feature category.

In addition to the grant from the ERC, Konacki has received a zl.100,000 subsidy from the Foundation for Polish Science as well as funds from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the National Science Center.

In their research, the Polish astronomers are using a technique for measuring the time of astronomical phenomena that was first applied in the 17th century by Danish astronomer Olaus Roemer, who estimated the speed of light by carrying out precise measurements of the times of eclipses of Jovian moons. Until 1676 light was thought to have an infinite speed. Roemer’s scrupulous observations led him to a qualitative conclusion that light travels at a finite speed, at the same time providing scientists with the basics of the Light-Time Effect (LTE) phenomenon. LTE is observed whenever the distance between the observer and any kind of periodic event changes with time. The usual cause of this distance change is the reflex motion about the system’s barycenter—the point between two objects where they balance each other—due to the gravitational influence of one or more additional bodies.

The Polish researchers say they aim to analyze 100 eclipsing binaries from the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) catalogue for variations in the times of their eclipses, which can possibly be due to LTE.

Karolina Olszewska
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