In space exploration, it's always about finding the next new thing. A galaxy never before seen, stars at the very beginning or end of their existence, the elusive dark matter. Astronomers have a passion for asking the question, "what else is out there?"
A new collaboration between two major universities, NASA and a host of other experts is turning that focus towards the search for exoplanets.
What is an exoplanet, sometimes called an "extrasolar planet?" It's a planet that orbits around a star other than the Sun. The star could be a remnant of a larger once brighter star, or it could be a brown dwarf, but in the last 10-12 years there have been 1,919 exoplanets discovered in 1,212 planetary systems. In 1992, two planets were detected orbiting a pulsar and in 1995 the first planet orbiting a main sequence star was confirmed.
Now there is an entire initiative dedicated to exoplanets, the Nexus for Exoplanets System Science or NExSS, recently announced by NASA. It's a four-year project with a budget of $3.25 million and is being led by a partnership of scientists and researchers from University of California Berkeley and Stanford University. The project will also have other universities as part of a virtual collective of expertise.
Dubbed "Exoplanets Unveiled" by UC Berkeley the focus of their specific efforts will include figuring out the properties of exoplanets and if those properties can explain how they were formed and whether or not they can support life. To this end, the group will have a brand new piece of equipment to aid in the search.
The Gemini Planet Imager, or GPI was first used in November 2014 at the Gemini Observatory. Normally exoplanets are discovered by measuring the gravitational effect they have on their parent star, known as a "wobble" or more technically, a Doppler effect, because of the pull the orbiting planet has on the star.
The GPI operates differently. It actually obscures the powerful light from the star, in order to be able to detect the planet next to it, which is not as bright. Similar to cities that shut off lights so that stars may be seen more clearly, the GPI in effect "shuts off" the light from the parent star so that its exoplanet can be discovered.
Led by UC Berkeley Professor James Graham and principal GPI investigator and Stanford physics professor Bruce MacIntosh, the initiative will also include planetary scientists, climate researchers and other experts in hopes that the information about exoplanets can benefit areas of science beyond just astronomy.
In a press release issued by NASA, MacIntosh said, "Getting a complete picture of all the incredibly strange planetary systems out there will require every different technique. With this new collaboration, we will combine the strengths of imaging, Doppler and transits to characterize planets and their orbits."
Currently the GPI is only able to detect emissions from bigger, brighter planets, at least as large as Jupiter. Hopefully, in years to come, the technology can be developed to detect Earth-sized planets. As Paul Kalas, an adjunct professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and co-primary investigator for the project stated, "We are just now sowing the seeds to get to that point."
Check out the video below for more information on NExSS
Source: Stanford University, Space Daily, NASA, Wikipedia, YouTube
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