Any experienced planet hunter will tell you: finding exoplanets is the real challenge, where hardened professionals go to test their mettle. These tricky bodies stymie conventional methods – like seeing a planet pass in front of its parent star – because exoplanets often have decades-long orbits, meaning you could spend a lot of lonely nights fruitlessly searching the skies. So scientists at the University of Leicester in England developed a new approach: looking for radio waves emitted when ultraviolet flares light up the atmospheres of planets like Saturn and Jupiter. The flares – auroras – even if invisible to ordinary telescopes, are detectable by radio telescopes like the European Low Frequency Array (or LOFAR, pictured above). The scientists hope those methods will help them discover planetary systems up to 150 light-years away, perhaps even some that can sustain life. And, of course, keep them one step ahead of Richard Branson.

[Image credit: LOFAR / ASTRON]

Engadget Mobile Podcast 085 - 04.23.2011