Lowell astronomers help discover worlds and characterize their nature.

Are we alone? This is one of humanity’s oldest questions — and one that several Lowell astronomers are involved in answering by detecting and characterizing planets around other stars.

keplerImage

A light curve from the Kepler mission. The top graph shows the dip in brightness when the planet passes in front of its parent star. The middle panel is a zoom of the top panel, demonstrating Kepler’s extraordinary sensitivity. Bottom: Kepler’s precision is a few tenths of a percent.

Ted Dunham and Georgi Mandushev have long been involved with programs designed to discover worlds.  The TrES (Transatlantic Exoplanet Survey) program included a camera at Lowell’s Anderson Mesa research site, and Ted was part of the science team for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which has discovered hundreds of planets orbiting other stars.  The technique used by both these projects is to watch for tiny eclipses — dips in a star’s brightness — as distant planets pass in front of the star. Sensitive enough to detect even small planets like Earth, Kepler is engaged in the first search for worlds capable of sustaining life as we know it.

Lisa Prato and Evgenya Shkolnik study young stars and young planetary systems using spectroscopy. They measure tiny variations in the position of spectral absorption lines — a phenomenon called the Doppler shift that is directly analogous to the change in pitch of a train’s whistle as it passes you. Precise spectroscopy allows Lisa and Evgenya to detect planets and study conditions in the planet-forming regions around their parent stars. Spectral analysis can also reveal the structure of young planetary disks, providing clues about how solar systems like our own come to be.

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