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Dr Khalid Al Subai
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Dr Khalid Al Subai

Dr Khalid Al Subai is the Scientific Director, Special Projects, at Qatar Environment & Energy Research Institute (QEERI). He and his team—based in Qatar, the US and the UK—are behind the discovery of the exoplanets Qatar 1 and Qatar 2. The investigators recently were recently awarded QNRF’s prestigious National Priorities Research Program-Exceptional Proposals (NPRP-EP) grant, of approximately US$ 5m, spanning five years of research. Dr. Al Subai graciously spoke to us about the field of exoplanetary research, the field of astronomy in Qatar, specifically, and what his team aims to do in the years ahead.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about this project, which just received the NPRP-EP award … how you would describe it to someone who knows very little about exoplanetary research?

A: The project actually was started in 2001 as a prototype. Through it, we successfully discovered Qatar 1 and Qatar 2. These are planets about the size of Jupiter in our solar system. They are located around far away stars, and they have their own solar system. They are outside and in our solar system. Our sun is just one of billions of stars that is very close to us; however, the other stars are very far away from us and so they appear as dots in the sky. So this work is just venturing to discover the map of the universe to see if there are other solar systems, how they are, what they are made of and eventually if there is habitability ... if other creatures can live in these places.

The project is trying to expand the knowledge of human beings and to answer a simple question: Are there intelligent creatures other than us in this vast universe? This has been a burning question for millennia, really.

Q: Are Qatar 1 and Qatar 2 in solar systems that are relatively close to ours?

A: No. One is about 150 million light years away. The other is about 200 million light years away. So they are not as close as you think, but the idea now is that we were successful in getting exceptional NPRP funding for expanding this survey. Right now, the current survey is limited because it’s just made from four lenses and it is in just one location in New Mexico, on a mountain. We chose that place because it has an exceptional view and offers clarity. With this QNRF grant, we are able to expand our survey into three continents. We are planning to expand the one in New Mexico from four lenses to eight lenses. We will keep the old ones as well and put another one on one of the Canary Islands. We are also deciding between Iran and India for another.

Q: Why are these places important?

A:These places offer us a very exceptional view of the sky—very dark skies. They are above very high mountains that make the atmosphere very transparent.

Q: Who's on your team?

A: Our collaborators are people who I have been working with since I was getting my PhD. They are all colleagues of mine from the University of St. Andrews in the UK and the University of Leicester. We also have one collaborator from Harvard University. I am the lead investigator on this project. We need a big team because this project requires a lot of work.

This latest grant will allow us here in Qatar to expand our team … to have more senior scientists residing in Qatar to supervise and follow up on the project.

Q: What are your goals now's to discover more planets and see if they are inhabitable?

A: Yes, both. If we are looking for life, we cannot find life just drifting around in space. We have to find the planet first. And then we find the right planet with the right conditions to discover if it is habitable or not.

Q: Has anyone else pursued this with such an amount of resources and dedication?

A: In Qatar, no. This research project is the only research project of its type that I know of in the Arabic and Islamic world. For this region, it’s pretty unique. And yes, our target is to discover more planets. Even if the planets we find don’t support life, it doesn’t mean that our efforts have been in vain. You know the story of how Edison found the correct lightbulb—many mistakes. We will go through many planets, but the idea here is that you don’t consider them faulty, because they are pointing out to you why they have been barren and what is required for the planets to be habitable. This is a very important concept for us, and for the people on Earth, as a lesson.

So if, for instance, if we go to Venus, we find it very, very hot. And people didn’t know why it was so hot … eventually we discovered it’s because of the amount of carbon in that atmosphere—it was a huge amount; many, many times more than Earth. And that atmosphere is like a furnace. And that is a lesson for us to watch out for—how much carbon we are emitting in the atmosphere. We don’t need to go through all of that trouble. We can scan the universe and we find out what is going right.

Even when you see very unfit planets, you will come again to appreciate the delicate balance of the planet Earth. We need to really appreciate that. Because so far we are not able to find the same circumstances for life ... so all of this is opening our minds to many concepts.

Q: So you see all the stars in the night sky—are you targeting specific stars and looking for planets close to them? Is that how you go about the search?

A: No. The idea is that we are looking for stars. First of all, it is really difficult. It is not as easy as people might think. And that’s the reason that human beings didn’t find planets outside our solar system until recently. Before that, we thought we were the only solar system in the universe. This is because in science, if you cannot prove it, it means that it’s not there. Even though there are many people speculating, it still can’t be until it is proven. In any case, these planets are tiny in size compared to the stars. For instance the size of the sun is one million times the size of the earth. The second thing is that the sun is emitting the light; however, the planets do not emit light. They reflect light. Another way to look at it is as if you imagine that you have a lighthouse. And you have that lighthouse and you put it ten miles away. And there is a fly around that lighthouse ... do you think that you would be able to see it?

That’s almost exactly the same scenario that we are dealing with. Advances in electronics allow us to detect the fly. If it is in front of the light passing by, it will reduce the light of the lighthouse by a tiny bit—so small that it is not recognizable by the human eye.

However, with high precision technology and sophisticated software, you can clean all kinds of noise [visual interference] from different sources: from the turbulence of the air for instance, or from the heat because you cannot really reduce the temperature to absolute zero, even the lens itself will deform the shape of the star. You try to clean every noise you can imagine and track down that little signal that tells you that something that has passed in front of the light source. And from this distance, with this technology, you can determine that it’s a planet. Specifically, there is a change in the light source that shows us a dip in the light, and that dip in the light tells us what the size of that planet is, its diameter, the density, and a good worth of information.

In the end, we are always looking at the light source.

Q: Over the next five years do you envision more advanced equipment to involve in this project?

A: We are trying right now to scan all of the equipment available so that we can be really updated when we start our work, but it’s very difficult really to say after two or three years what will come up in technology and how it will affect us. On a related note, by the end of this project, we will see another important project by NASA called TESS, which will do the same work we are doing but with a telescope in space. With this setup, NASA has an advantage in terms of getting a better signal-to-noise ratio, and it’s more sensitive as well. But you have to consider the budget for our project, which is $5 million, and theirs, which is $500 million. So you see the magnitude of this difference right away—if you want to get that level of sensitivity, you need to pay the money.

But even with the amount of money we have received, we can still add to the science, and that’s exciting. Part of our project involves sponsoring two Qataris to get their PhD in this science so we are really, as you say, building human capacity around astronomy in Qatar. Additionally, there is another project supported by QNRF. It’s called Fascination Astronomy, and it involves about 1 million dollars. This will really be an outreach program for schools and teachers that runs astronomy festivals each year along with a lot of other activities. So we are not just being scientists … we want people to learn about and enjoy science as well.

Q: You mentioned earlier that this research helps us understand ourselves—is that what you would consider a nice side effect of the research?

A: The idea that the planet is warming up did not come from observations here, it came from observations of Venus. We don’t want to be another Venus.

Q: Can you say a bit about the support you have received from QNRF?

A: The reality is that two years ago, we received one grant from QNRF regarding a micro-lensing method to find planets, and now we have the Exceptional Proposal grant and we also are getting support for Fascination Astronomy. Really, without the support of QNRF, astronomy would not stand in Qatar … and we think that with the help of QNRF, eventually astronomy will have a strong base in Qatar.

You need to start somewhere, and QNRF helped us make that start. Before, many people would say “but you don’t have many astronomers around, so why should QF support such research?” This way we create the foundation. We will develop the human resources, and we will be able to prove to the public that astronomy is a very good introduction for science in general. For instance, if you go to any school, or middle school or even fifth grade—and talk to them about the stars … even if they don’t like math—as usual—or they don’t like science, they will be excited about the topic. Astronomy is automatically a very good introduction to science. And we have a big problem in Qatar—we need to attract university graduates to science. Most of our graduates go for business and other subjects, but the minority will go for science and we need to increase that number.

Q: Do you really think we will find life on other planets?

A: Really, life is a solution for a very complicated issue. From the beginning of the creation of the universe, the reality is that it is well-tuned to have life. But whether that life is spread across the universe … well, we think yes, it is. But will we be able to find it in our lifetime? Not sure. The universe is huge for us, really, but the repetition of the same experiment or the same conditions that have happened on Earth is very possible. Our galaxy is just one, and it alone has over 200 million stars like our sun. But the universe has millions and millions of galaxies. I mean it has to—one of these has to go right [livability-wise], by statistics. 

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