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FengHan.jpgLeft: Ying (Katherina) Feng (‘13) Right: Eunkyu Han (‘12) Photo Credit: Sharon X. Wang


The Exoplanet Orbit Database

In 1992, Alexander Wolszczan, Evan Pugh Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics, discovered the first planets outside the solar system, orbiting a pulsar. Today, over 600 planets orbiting other stars (or “exoplanets”) are known, including several discovered by Penn State astronomers at the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds (CEHW) using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in Ft. Davis, Texas. These include discoveries by Wolszczan and graduate student Sara Gettel (Ph.D., ‘12), Professor Jason Wright, and graduate student Sharon Wang.

The Exoplanet Orbit Database at exoplanets.org, maintained by Wright’s team at Penn State, keeps track of these discoveries, listing the best orbital parameters and host star properties of exoplanets published in the peer-reviewed literature. Users can explore the properties of the known exoplanets with the Exoplanet Data Explorer, an elegant data visualization tool.

Keeping up with all of these discoveries takes a lot of work. Wright’s team includes CEHW postdoctoral associate Ming Zhao, graduate student Sharon Wang, researcher and recent graduate Eunkyu Han (‘12), and astronomy and astrophysics major Ying (Katherina) Feng (‘13). Every day Han and Feng search the astronomical peer-reviewed literature, preprint servers, and mailing lists for new exoplanetary discoveries. If the measured orbit of a new planet meets the strict standards of the Exoplanet Orbit Database, they carefully enter the properties of the planet into the uniform format of the database and push the data to the server. Zhao and Wang spearhead new features of the database, and work to maintain overall accuracy and usability.

Han and Feng will apply for graduate school in the fall, armed with the experience
of having examined nearly every exoplanet discovery paper published since 2008 and curated a database used by researchers and educators around the world.