This project will provide funds to continue operations of the MEarth facility, which consists of eight 40cm optical telescopes in Arizona, and to expand the project with another array of eight identical telescopes in Chile in order to provide both northern and southern hemisphere sky coverage. The telescopes will be used to complete a 3-year all-sky survey to search for Earth-sized planets in the habitable-zones of the 3500 nearest late M-dwarf stars. M-dwarf stars are selected instead of solar-type stars, because their cooler temperatures, smaller radii, and lower masses will all lead to easier detections of transiting planets with less observing time required. Graduate and undergraduate students, and a postdoctoral research will be funded to participate in the research. In addition to searching for habitable planets, the project will produce useful data on low-mass eclipsing binary stars, transiting brown dwarfs and the characterization of the spin-down rate of fully convective stars.
An exciting frontier of modern astronomy is the quest to find planets around stars other than the Sun. Of particular interest are those planets that are the right size and temperature to support liquid water on their surfaces, and could potentially host life. Finding these small, cool, habitable planets across interstellar differences is very difficult in glare of the big, bright stars they orbit. With the MEarth Project, weâ€™re trying a slightly different tack: Weâ€™re looking around the smallest, coolest, and closest stars to stack the odds in our favor in finding small, cool planets. The MEarth Observatory consists of two arrays of telescopes, one located in southern Arizona, the other in Chile. Each array contains 8 robotic 16inch telescopes, which awake at sunset to survey our list of nearby small stars located over the enture sky. We are carefully and repeatedly measuring the brightness of these stars, looking for the handful that periodically become fainter due to the passage of an orbiting planet blocking some of the starlight. It is in this fashion that MEarth discovered the super-Earth GJ1214b, a planet roughly 6 times the mass of Earth, which has now been scrutinized by astronomers worldwide. In addition to hunting for planets, MEarth has directly measured the distances to the stars in the survey, which in turn allowed us to produce a complete census of stars in the neighborhood of the Sun. Our data have also allowed us to learn about the process by which stars spin down as they age. We have also discovered new binary stars systems, in which the two stars eclipse one another, which permits us to directly measure the sizes and masses of the stars and test our understanding of the internal composition and structure of stars. The MEarth project permitted the advanced astrophysics training of undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows. All data from the project have been made available to the public through our MEarth Project webpage, and we have described our discoveries in numerous peer reviewed journals and placed copies of these papers in publicly accessible online archives. Please visit the project webpage to learn more about our search for nearby, habitable planets, and the telescopes and scientists that make it possible.