Everything You Need to Know About Exoplanet Exploration

by Modis on July 15, 2016

Illustration of an exoplanet beyond our solar systemWhat would it be like to live on a planet with three suns? You’d greet each day with an overwhelmingly beautiful triple sunrise and watch amazing triple sunsets. Well, that’s fun to imagine but it would not really be the case on HD 131399Ab, a newly-discovered exoplanet. A single orbit of HD 131399Ab takes 550 years. For 140 or so years of that orbital period, there would be almost constant daytime.

Exoplanets orbit stars outside our solar system. This latest discovery is part of an exciting new wave of planetary exploration that extends beyond our solar system and young scientists are helping to lead it.

Lead author of the paper introducing this world with three suns was Kevin Wagner, a first-year Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona. Both Wagner and Trevor David, an astronomy student at Caltech are supported by awards from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. David recently found K2-33b, the youngest exoplanet ever discovered.

In the UK, a group of A-level (advanced-placement high school) students doing a summer internship found two possible candidates for new exoplanets.

The Search for Exoplanets

Exoplanets cannot be seen with a telescope, so their existence is proven indirectly. There are five methods of discovering new exoplanets:

  • Solar wobble: The gravitational pull of a planet can be enough to make its sun wobble a bit in its orbit, so astronomers watch for small changes in the color of the light it emits.
  • Shadows on the star: When a planet passes in front of its sun, it dims the star’s light enough to measure.
  • Direct imaging: This new technology blocks the light from the star itself so that the dimmer planet can be seen.
  • Gravitational microlensing: The gravity of a large object such as a star or planet causes light to bend or distort as it passes. When astronomers record such a “lensing event,” they can analyze the data to make estimates about the size of the celestial body.
  • Astrometry: In addition to watching for wobble in a star’s orbit, astronomers also can identify an exoplanet by finding changes in the star’s position in the sky.

Why Exoplanets Matter

The study of exoplanets can help us map our galaxy and understand how planets and solar systems form. It could even lead to finding alien life. Of the 900 exoplanets discovered so far, there are three that are Earth-like with potentially habitable areas.

What could be cooler than discovering a new planet? Maybe naming one? The International Astronomical Union has a working group that reviews and aids campaigns that let the public name exoplanets and surface features. Recent public votes resulted in planets named Titawin, Hypatia and Smertrios.

Careers in Exoplanetology

Amateur astronomers can play around with data – and help classify it – at PlanetHunters.org. But, as the examples of Kevin Wagner and Trevor David show, the field of exoplanetology is very welcoming to newly minted scientists. For research, you’ll likely need a PhD in physics, astrophysics, astronomy or planetary science, but the field also needs optical engineers, software programmers, and data scientists.

Beyond that, you should strive for breadth of knowledge, according to astronomer Romeel Davé, a professor of cosmology at the University of the Western Cape. Writing on Quora, he told a student looking for a good astronomy graduate program, “Astronomy is extremely interconnected. If you go into astronomy research and want to be successful, you are best served to have a lot of breadth. This means knowing something about everything from planets to dark energy. Of course you have specializations, but the people who are the most successful are ones who are able to think holistically about astrophysical systems.”

If you yearn for adventure, you can take part in planetary exploration right here on earth with this exciting career.

Want to learn more about space exploration?

We’re big fans of the final frontier here at Modis! Learn about the Mars One mission and what it could mean for the future of space exploration. Want to go further into our solar system? Find out what researchers are hoping to learn from NASA’s Juno space probe.

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