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Appalachian Astronomers Pave Way for NASA Search for Life

082900nasa_dl.jpgBOONE–The groundwork for discovering life outside of Earth is underway at Appalachian State University and its Dark Sky Observatory.

Led by Appalachian astronomer Richard O. Gray a team of researchers is collecting data on 3,600 nearby stars. Using the data NASA will choose the most likely stars to harbor a planet with life for study by two missions late this decade which aim to answer the fundamental question – is there life on other planets?

“One of NASA’s basic purposes is the search for origins,” said Gray. “With these missions NASA will be able to look for other planets and even see the composition of the atmosphere. If there is oxygen, it is almost certain there also is life.”

Gray’s study is part of a three-year $155,000 grant from NASA and the National Science Foundation’s “Stars in the Solar Neighborhood” (NStars) program. Gray’s team will acquire precise data on stars within 130 light-years of the Earth.

“This is exciting because we are paving the way for missions which could discover life,” Gray said.

NStars was created to prepare for the NASA Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) and the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission.

Both of these space missions will be capable of discovering planets around nearby stars.

The TPF mission is designed to discover Earth-like planets around these stars.

“We will gather most of the data at Appalachian’s Dark Sky Observatory,” Gray said.

In addition to using

Dark Sky Observatory’s 32-inch telescope, the team will use the Vatican Advanced Technology telescope in Arizona, the David Dunlap Observatory telescope in Canada and the Helen Sawyer Hogg telescope in Argentina.

The studies will enable Gray, his colleagues and his students to determine the basic characteristics of nearby stars such as temperature, sizes, chemical compositions and age.

The information will help select suitable stars to be monitored by the SIM and TPF spacecraft.

“It would be enormously important to find an Earth-like planet out there,” Gray said. “But regardless, the more we can understand about other solar systems and planets, the more we will know about our origins.

“We can’t really understand the Earth and our solar system until we have more information about other stars and solar systems.”

Appalachian undergraduate and graduate students will assist Gray throughout the three-year project.

“Working on a project of this size and importance is tremendous not only from a learning standpoint, but also for the student’s resume,” Gray said. “This is a unique learning opportunity few universities can provide.”

For more information on the NASA missions see the Web sites:

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Picture Caption: Appalachian State University astronomer Richard Gray (pointing) and researcher Michael McFadden work charting stars at Appalachian’s Dark Sky Observatory. (Appalachian photo by University Photographer Mike Rominger)