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Research in Action: NSF Grant Helps to Further the Search for Earthlike Exoplanets

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Research in Action: NSF Grant Helps to Further the Search for Earthlike Exoplanets

Jason Wright, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics, is the principal investigator on the grant.

6 February 2015

A four-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is allowing scientists in the Eberly College of Science to better search for Earthlike planets outside of our solar system.

Jason Wright, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics and principal investigator on the grant, is searching for exoplanets, or planets that exist outside of our solar system and orbit a star instead of our sun. To do this, Wright and his team use data from some of the largest telescopes in the world: telescopes from the W. M Keck Observatory in Hawaii and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Texas.

The Hobby-Eberly Telescope is a joint venture between Penn State and three other universities, and was designed by Larry Ramsey, distinguished senior scholar and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. Because the Hobby-Eberly Telescope was built in the late 1990s, it is getting a series of major hardware upgrades to make it even better at searching for exoplanets, which in turn requires updated software to collect the telescope’s data, says Wright. “We are working to develop new software for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope’s high-resolution spectrograph so that it performs at a world-class level.” 

The $356,000 grant makes the high-resolution spectrograph software upgrade possible. The upgraded software will increase the Hobby-Eberly Telescope’s precision and will also take advantage of new data analysis techniques to retroactively improve the data from the telescope’s former spectrograph. 

To discover exoplanets, Wright and his colleagues use Doppler spectroscopy, or the wobble method, to find Jupiter analogs, or exoplanets that are similar in size to Jupiter in our solar system. Jupiter analogs are large and exhibit some gravitational pull on their star, causing the star to “wobble.” Using the spectrograph, Wright can measure the radial velocity and Doppler light shifts of a star to determine if Jupiter analogs exist in that star’s system.

“Using this method, we can determine which stars are likely to have planets like Earth,” he says. "We can also find the Jupiter analogs orbiting stars already discovered to have Earth-sized planets by NASA's Kepler spacecraft."

Searching for Jupiter analogs is an important step in the search to find Earthlike planets. “We can’t find things like the Earth yet, but we are starting to find things like Jupiter, and that’s a game of patience, because Jupiter takes twelve years to go around the sun,” Wright says. “The goal of the grant is to find the Jupiter analogs as signposts for the interior planets that might be like Earth that we can’t detect yet.”

The data collected as a result of this research can be viewed at exoplanets.org, a site updated by Wright’s undergraduate researchers. More information about Wright’s research can be found at sites.psu.edu/astrowright.

For more information on research in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, visit astro.psu.edu/astro-research.


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