Searching for Planets Outside of Our Solar System

I’m currently working on writing stories for Ohio State Astronomy Department’s second edition magazine, Galaxy. This is one of the stories I have written. It will need some adjustments made, but overall it’s pretty much finished. I have included a couple of pictures from google images, as well. This discovery was made a couple of years ago, but it was a pretty big deal for the student and her adviser, so it certainly deserves some coverage.

Searching for Planets Outside of Our Solar System

Undergraduate astronomy majors at Ohio State have the opportunity to
collect data at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, work on the
latest instruments that will be used to obtain data from the world’s most
technologically advanced telescopes, and discover planets.

During her participation in the summer undergraduate research program of
2008, Julia Janczak discovered an extra-solar planet. Extra-solar planets, also
known as exoplanets, are planets that are not in our Solar System.

Since the first exoplanet found in 1992, there have been more than four
hundred confirmed exoplanets. Of these four hundred, only ten exoplanets
have been found with a technique known as microlensing. Janczak
discovered the tenth and most recent.

Microlensing events occur when the light from a distant source is bent by
the gravitational force of a massive foreground object, such as a star or
galaxy. By observing how sharply the light is bent, astronomers can deduce
information about the foreground object. This means that very faint objects,
such as planets or brown dwarfs can still be studied, even though they cannot
be seen through a telescope.

Janczak collaborated with Dr. Andrew Gould who is a Distinguished
Professor in the Department of Mathematical and Physical Sciences of
Astronomy at Ohio State. Her goal for the 2008 summer research program
was to analyze data from a microlensing event. “She was involved with the
data reduction as well as trying to understand the microlensing events as they
were coming in,” explained Gould.

Neither Gould or Janczak expected a planet to be found from the data. “The
event just looked like a single-star microlensing event, and part of the reason
for analyzing it was due to its apparent lack of planets,” said Gould.

Janczak worked on her research throughout her senior year, and presented her
work at the Biological and Mathematical Physical Sciences research forum
and at the Denman forum. Both of these forums are OSU sponsored and give

undergraduates a chance to present a poster about a research project they
have been involved with.

Janczak published a paper describing her work, Sub-Saturn Planet MOA-
2008-BLG-310Lb: Likely to be in the Galactic Bulge, as first author in March
of 2010. Gould remarked that, “Janczak’s paper is probably one of the longest
and most complex papers an astronomy undergraduate has written.”

Janczak is currently a graduate student at the Department of Physics at Ohio
State. “I have profound respect for Dr. Gould and the additional collaborators
Scott Gaudi, Richard Pogge, and Subo Dong ,” said Janczak, “They were
very helpful and a joy to work with. I had a wonderful experience.”

Searching for exoplanets via microlensing involves a global network of
communication between observational astronomers. This network is called
the microlensing follow-up network, or MicroFUN.

“Ohio State is the world headquarters of MicroFUN,” Gould explained. “It’s
a worldwide network of observers, where more than half of them are amateur
astronomers.”

Gould continued his research with another undergraduate, Li-Wei Hung,
during the summer of 2010.

Hung participated in the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory
undergraduate research program in Cambridge, MA during the summer
of 2009. “I analyzed the accretion disc around an X-Ray pulsar within a
binary system and tried to understand the significance behind its geometrical
orientation to the pulsar,” said Hung. “My time at Harvard equipped me with
skills and knowledge that I continue to use in my current research. It was an
invaluable experience.”

The following winter Hung traveled to Chile. There she participated in
the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory research program where
she performed data analysis on three different galaxy clusters. “The CTIO
research program was a lot of fun. I worked with a Chilean student who
taught me programming in python, which turned out to be a very helpful skill
that I’m using in my current research with Dr. Gould.”

Hung presented her summer research at the Biological, Mathematical, and
Physical sciences research forum in 2010 and won first place in her category.

Hung’s knack for undergraduate research lead her to apply for the Ohio
State’s Astronomy REU for the summer of 2010. Her interest in planetary
science made her a good match for Gould.

“My research at Ohio State was the hardest work of the three REU’s
I have undertaken. Analysis of a microlensing event involves long,
complex computer codes which I am expected to modify to fit my event’s
specifications,” said Hung. “I will continue to work on this interesting event
and write my senior thesis on it,” she added.

Hung will graduate in the winter of 2010 and aims to expand her education in
graduate school for astronomy. Some of the graduate schools she is applying
to include University of Arizona, University of California, Berkeley, and
Harvard University.

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