Queensland’s only professional research observatory for astronomy teaching and research training, the University of Southern Queensland’s Mount Kent Observatory, is playing a leading role in NASA’s new planet-finding space mission.

The MINERVA-Australis facility at Mount Kent — part of the wider MINERVA project — has now been completed and is ready to start work.

MINERVA — the Miniature Exoplanet Radial Velocity Array — is a group of 70-cm automated telescopes that are involved in the search for Earth-like exoplanets within about 300 light-years of the Solar System.

MINERVA is supporting NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) space mission. MINERVA-Australis is the only facility in the Southern Hemisphere dedicated to providing ground-based observations to support TESS.

“In the next few years NASA’s TESS spacecraft should detect thousands of new worlds, but ground-based facilities are critically needed to follow-up those discoveries, and to help us understand what kind of planets they might be,” said USQ astrophysicist and MINERVA-Australis project lead, Professor Rob Wittenmyer.

“This is where MINERVA-Australis comes in. We are the only dedicated facility in the Southern Hemisphere for this kind of work. We can observe the stars around which TESS suspected planets and confirm the existence of those planets and learn more about them.

“That makes us a vital piece of the puzzle — without our facility, many of the planets TESS finds would remain unconfirmed, and uncharacterised.”

The observatory has already assisted in the discovery of 13 planets orbiting distant stars.

MINERVA-Australis is supported by Australian Research Council LIEF Grant LE160100001, Discovery Grant DP180100972, Mount Cuba Astronomical Foundation, and institutional partners the University of Southern Queensland, UNSW Australia, MIT, Nanjing University, George Mason University, the University of Louisville, the University of California Riverside, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Pictured: Marking the completion of MINERVA-Australis at USQ’s Mount Kent Observatory on July 23 were (back, from left to right) Dr Brett Addison, Professor Jonti Horner, Duncan Wright, Assistant Professor Peter Plavchan (George Mason University) and Mathieu Colette; and front (from left to right) Dr Belinda Nicholson, Professor Rob Wittenmyer and Professor Brad Carter. Courtesy USQ Photography.