The Story Behind the Planets Named After Qatar
DOHA—You may or may not have heard of Qatar 6-b. It’s the latest of six planets which orbit a star other than our sun—also known as exoplanets—to share the name of the Gulf state.
It was discovered in December 2017 by Khalid al-Subai, senior research director of special projects at Hamad bin Khalifa University, who leads the Qatar Exoplanet Survey. But ever since he discovered his first exoplanet, Qatar 1-b, back in 2010 he has been annoyed that many people assume the name is thanks to his country’s wallet and not his research efforts.
“Most people thought we just bought it,” says al-Subai. “It was frustrating.”
While nationalism may have helped to motivate the government’s funding of this project, it’s more than just a vanity project, says al-Subai. It’s cutting-edge science that he hopes will help to inspire more young people to study the cosmos.
To scan the skies in search of these remote planets, al-Subai needs very powerful telescopes, but he initially found it very hard to convince agencies to fund the purchase. So he decided to buy one in New Mexico with his own money. He declined to reveal how much it cost, but it is likely to have been close to $1 million.
“It’s my passion. I do it because I love it,” he says.
After he discovered and named his first exoplanet, the Qatar Foundation funded the purchasing of three more telescopes, which are dispersed around the globe to allow him to scan in search of other exoplanets at all hours of the day.
“There’s an element of nationalism here,” says Jörg Matthias Determann, a professor of the history of science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. “It’s about projecting a brand into space.” (See a related article, “The Arab World’s Often Overlooked Space Research.”)
“It’s also about the knowledge economy and the need to get more young people interested in the sciences,” says Determann.
Al-Subai uses what is known as the “transit method” to hunt for exoplanets. That means he directs his telescopes to study a star and record changes in the light emitted—shadows cast by the exoplanets as their orbit brings them in front of the star. The concept is simple, but the signals he looks for are tiny, and that makes the execution complex.
“Think of it like a fly going past a lighthouse,” he says. “To be honest, the telescopes aren’t that complicated. It’s the computing and knowing how to eliminate interference from clouds, heat and other celestial bodies that makes it hard.”
Most of the signals his telescopes pick up turn out not to be exoplanets.
“It’s like mining,” says al-Subai. “You go and dig around for a long time but eventually you stumble on something.”
Other exoplanet researchers say they also get results in fits and starts.
“About 90 percent of the candidates we identify turn out not to be planets,” says Andrew Cameron, a professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews, in the United Kingdom.
Cameron is a founding member of the Wide Angle Search for Planets, or WASP project, a British effort to identify exoplanets, and he collaborates with al-Subai. “Large-scale survey work does require patience, but it has rewards,” he says.
“Doing this helps us to discover the history of our own planet and solar system. The composition of Earth depends on how it was formed,” says Cameron. “The real goal is to better determine the production stages of planets.”
But it can be hard to find funders with enough money and patience to back scientists like al-Subai and Cameron with their star-gazing quests.
“There’s a dangerous trend towards short-term-ism in science around the world, but some fundamental science simply can’t be done in the time frame of a Ph.D.,” says Cameron.“I think the Qatar Exoplanet Survey will set an example that it’s worth it to invest in long term research.”