Sewanee observatory peers at distant worlds

by Alysse Schultheis

While everyone else is asleep, one student at the Cordell-Lorenz Observatory remains awake to study and observe the sky above us. Taylor Morris (C’16) has recently been busy analyzing data in order to further understand exoplanets.

What differentiates an exoplanet from the planets in our solar system? A planet is classified as an exoplanet if it orbits around a star other than the sun. There are two main types of exoplanets that researchers focus on. The first group is labeled “Hot Jupiters,” which are big gas giants, like Jupiter, but are much closer to their parent star. The second group, “Super Earths,” consists of planets similar to Earth’s density and composition, but they can get as big as Neptune. The primary goal of exoplanet science is locating planets that could potentially sustain life, so “Super Earths” present a promising option.

Twenty years ago, astronomers would have said that Earth-based observatories, like Sewanee, would not be able to extract data on exoplanets, but recently Sewanee was able to prove them wrong. Dr. Durig, from the physics department, and Morris have been beta testing a special software code called OSCAAR, which researchers from the University of Maryland at College Park developed, since mid-July this past summer. The software allows them to measure the light coming from stars with exoplanets.

When a planet passes in front of a star, a process called a “transit,” then the visible light from the star decreases. OSCAAR allows the fluctuation in light to be measured. Over the summer, Morris and Durig worked to master the proper techniques and observing parameters required to observe and record these transits. This work resulted in using the Sewanee Observatory to look at distant worlds and record the light trends.

The research is by no means finished. The team still has to work on the statistical analysis of the light curves to get parameters, such as the size of the planet and its angle. The observatory’s computers run millions of steps in order to process the data they receive.

Examining the numbers will help to explain what exactly is being viewed and measured. The data Morris and Durig have studied so far has been archived by the Czech Astronomical Society, and the researchers are currently preparing their data for presentations at scientific conferences later in the year. If you have any further questions about the research, exoplanets, or the observatory, feel free to contact Taylor Morris at morrita0@sewanee.edu.

Graph courtesy of Taylor Morris
Graph courtesy of Taylor Morris

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