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Lowell Observatory image of an exoplanet transiting its parent star

Exoplanet transiting its parent star. Lowell Observatory.

Lowell astronomers help answer a BIG question: Are we alone?

It 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.

Ted Dunham is part of the science team for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which is now patiently staring at one patch of sky about a million miles from Earth. Kepler is watching 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 (who joins our staff in September 2011) 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.

Travis Barman uses complex models to understand the composition of extrasolar planet atmospheres. He has also been part of teams that have directly imaged planets orbiting other stars — an extremely difficult feat since these planets are vanishingly faint next to their brilliant parent stars. Travis and his collaborators have succeeded in observing multiple planets around a distant star — humanity’s first picture of another planetary system.

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