A quick fly through the nearby universe will show you, well, a whole lot of nothing. But, embedded in the nearest bits of that nothing are 8 spectacular planets, dozens of moons, and hundreds of random bits of rock and ice that, depending on where they orbit, fall into such categories as asteroids, Kuiper belt objects, and comets. Somewhat randomly distributed around (and sometimes on) these celestial objects are little bits of flying metal.
Locally, COROT (vaguely rhymes with Inspector Perot), obtained first light today (image above, credit CNES 2006 – D. Ducros). This orbital observatory will dedicate it self to the search for rocky worlds around other stars. A product of the European Space Agency, COROT will study nearby stars with its 30cm telescope, looking for slight changes in brightness indicative of planetary transits. The images it takes will also be useful for asteroseismology, the study of how stars bump and wiggle in reaction to chemical and thermal processes deep beneath their surfaces. Pre-launch calculations predict that every 150 days (the time COROT will spend studying one area of the sky), COROT could discover 10-40 rocky planets and tens of gas giants. Since the first published discoveries of an extrasolar planet around a pulsar in 1992, and around a normal star in 1995, astronomers have only discovered 209 extrasolar worlds. With COROT, that number could double in as little as 1 year.Read More