6 July 2004
Original release issued by:
Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Press Officer
Phone: +44 1223 564914
Images, notes, and contact details appear below.
The going gets tough for life in other solar systems
Though the star Tau Ceti is similar to the Sun, any planets it has are
unlikely to be havens for life, say a team of UK astronomers. Using
submillimetre images of the disk of material surrounding Tau Ceti, they
found that it must contain more than ten times as many comets and asteroids
than there are in the Solar System. With so many more space rocks hurtling
around the star, devastating collisions of the sort that could lead to the
destruction of life would be much more likely in the Tau Ceti system than in
our own planetary system.
Publication of the result in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical
Society coincides with an exhibit 'Hunting for Planets in Stardust' at the
Royal Society Summer Exhibition by the same science team from the UK
Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh and the University of St Andrews.
Tau Ceti, only 12 light years away, is the nearest sun-like star and is
easily visible without a telescope. It is the first star to be found to have
a disk of dust and comets around it similar in size and shape to the disk of
comets and asteroids that orbits the Sun. But the similarity ends there
explains Jane Greaves, Royal Astronomical Society Norman Lockyer Fellow and
lead scientist: 'Tau Ceti has more than ten times the number of comets and
asteroids that there are in our Solar System. We don't yet know whether
there are any planets orbiting Tau Ceti, but if there are, it is likely that
they will experience constant bombardment from asteroids of the kind that is
believed to have wiped out the dinosaurs. It is likely that with so many
large impacts life would not have the opportunity to evolve.'
The discovery means that scientists are going to have to rethink where they
look for civilisations outside our Solar System. Jane Greaves continues, 'We
will have to look for stars which are even more like the Sun, in other
words, ones which have only a small number of comets and asteroids. It may
be that hostile systems like Tau Ceti are just as common as suitable ones
like the Sun.'
The reason for the larger number of comets is not fully understood explains
Mark Wyatt, another member of the team: 'It could be that the Sun passed
relatively close to another star at some point in its history and that the
close encounter stripped most of the comets and asteroids from around the
The new results are based on observations taken with the world's most
sensitive submillimetre camera, SCUBA. The camera, built by the Royal
Observatory, Edinburgh, is operated on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in
Hawaii. The SCUBA image shows a disk of very cold dust (-210 degrees C) in
orbit around the star. The dust is produced by collisions between larger
comets and asteroids that break them down into smaller and smaller pieces.
Images are available from http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/tc_images.asp
- Artist's impression: For any planets orbiting Tau Ceti, the skies will be
criss-crossed with comets and meteors will frequently strike the surface.
Credit: David Hardy.
- SCUBA Image: Image of the disc of dust particles around the star Tau
Ceti, taken with the submillimetre-wavelength camera SCUBA. The false
colours show the brightness of the disc. Its diameter is slightly larger
than the Solar System. Credit: James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.
- The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) was used to take the image of
the Tau Ceti dust disk. It is the world's largest single-dish submillimetre
telescope. It collects faint submillimetre signals with its 15 metre
diameter dish. It is situated near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island
of Hawaii, at an altitude of approximately 4000 metres (14000 feet) above
sea level. Credit: Nik Szymanek.
Royal Society Summer Exhibition
The Royal Society Summer Exhibition runs from 5 to 8 July 2004 in London
and is open to the general public on Monday 5 July 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.; Tuesday 6
July 11 a.m. - 4.30 p.m.; Wednesday 7 and Thursday 8 July 10 a.m. - 4.30
Observing Tau Ceti
Tau Ceti is in the constellation Cetus. Although it is visible without a
telescope, at this time of year it rises at about 3
a.m. - just before the Sun, so is very hard to spot.
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)
The JCMT is the world's largest single-dish submillimetre telescope. It is
situated near the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, at an
altitude of approximately 4000 metres (14000 feet) above sea level. It is
operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, on behalf of the UK Particle Physics
and Astronomy Research Council, the Canadian National Research Council, and
the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research.
SCUBA (the Submillimetre Common-User Bolometer Array) is the world's most
powerful submillimetre camera. It is attached to the James Clerk Maxwell
Telescope, and contains sensitive detectors called bolometers, which are
cooled to 60 milliKelvin, 0.06 degrees above absolute zero (60 milliKelvin
is about -273.1 degrees Celsius or -459.6 degrees Fahrenheit). SCUBA was
built in the UK by the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, at what is now the UK
Astronomy Technology Centre.
- Dr Jane Greaves, Astronomer, University of St Andrews
Tel: +44 7745 127391
- Peter Barratt, Head of Communications, PPARC
Tel: +44 1793 442025
- Eleanor Gilchrist, Public Relations Officer, Royal Observatory
Tel (mobile): +44 771 873 6971
Tel (office): +44 131 668 8379
- Dr Douglas Pierce Price, James Clerk Maxwell Telescope
Tel: +1 808 969 6524
- More about the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)
- The Joint Astronomy Centre outreach site
- The UK Astronomy Technology Centre
- Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council
- The Royal Astronomical Society
- This press release