North Texas Daily

Protoplanet confirmed by astronomers

Protoplanet confirmed by astronomers

March 19
22:54 2013

Andrew Freeman / Staff Writer

Through UNT’s Exoplanet Confirmation Research Project, a Jupiter-sized protoplanet, also known as an exoplanet, has been confirmed 335 light years away.

“Protoplanets are planets that are still kind of forming,” said Ron “Starman” Dilulio, Astronomy Laboratory Director. “With exoplanet studies, we pick targets given to us by an European observatory, and we watch them until we can confirm that they are in fact, exoplanets.”

UNT has its own observatory in Gainesville – the Monroe Robotic Observatory – where astronomers watch the skies with four telescopes, which can be remotely controlled from the campus.

“It’s located out in the middle of nowhere, far away from city light pollution, which allows you to see a lot more than you can at the Rafes Urban Astronomy Center in Denton,” physics junior Erin McEwen said. “The telescopes at the Monroe are also equipped with great cameras. It’s a lot of fun to photograph deep sky objects — taking a picture of a nebula is a great way to impress your friends.”

Along with graduate student Adewole Murthada, McEwen has been looking for “exoplanet transit events” since February for her senior thesis, which she and Murthada will write by the end of the semester.

“The idea is to observe when an extrasolar planet crosses in front of its parent star,” McEwen said. “When we’ve identified an event we want to observe, we use the Monroe equipment to take hundreds of pictures of the parent star in sequence, starting about 30 minutes before the transit begins and stopping about 30 minutes after it ends.”

When that is finished, software is used to plot the brightness of the light in the images over time, creating a graph known as a “light curve.” If the planet is blocking some of the light, and that data shows the transit began and ended when the predictions online said it would, then a planet is confirmed.

The first exoplanet was discovered in 1989, with the first documented case being in the mid-1990s. However, in the last decade, there are more than 5,000 possible exoplanets discovered, with over 800 confirmed.

“With today’s technology, we are almost discovering one a day,” physics professor Ohad Shemmer said. “This is still in its infancy. We used to think Keplar technology was the peak, now we see it is just the beginning.”

Shemmer said there is no telling how long it takes for a confirmation of an exoplanet, as the transit of the protoplanet must be observed several times, and that could take years.

“Exoplanets are a hot topic in astronomy right now, and I think a lot of that has to do with the implications for life outside our solar system,” McEwen said. “Hopefully we’ll get to do another observation or two by the end of the semester.”

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