TAEM News Flash- George Mason University Team Searching for Exoplanets!

This past month we interviewed Dr. Michael Summers from George Mason University located on the campus in Fairfax, Virginia. Our publisher also offered a challenge to the academic world to help support NASA after another media outlet stated that they seemed to be ‘Lost In Space’. This came about after a report stated that NASA has no set goals for future space exploration. George Mason University is the first college to answer the call !

Dr. Summers has a team put together and they are searching for Exoplanets. An extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, is a planet outside the Solar System. A total of 853 such planets (in 672 planetary systems, including 126 multiple planetary systems) have been identified as of December 1, 2012, all of them within the Milky Way galaxy. It is expected that there are many billions of planets in the Milky Way galaxy, not only occurring around stars but also as free-floating planetary-mass bodies The nearest known exoplanet is Alpha Centauri Bb.

For centuries, many philosophers and scientists supposed that extrasolar planets existed, but there was no way of knowing how common they were or how similar they might be to the planets of the Solar System. Various detection claims made starting in the nineteenth century were all eventually rejected by astronomers. The first confirmed detection came in 1992, with the discovery of several terrestrial-mass planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12. The first confirmed detection of an exoplanet orbiting a main-sequence star was made in 1995, when a giant planet was found in a four-day orbit around the nearby star 51 Pegasi. Due to improved observational techniques, the rate of detections has increased rapidly since then.[1] Some exoplanets have been directly imaged by telescopes, but the vast majority have been detected through indirect methods such as radial velocity measurements. Most known exoplanets are giant planets believed to resemble Jupiter or Neptune, but this reflects a sampling bias, as massive planets are more easily observed. Some relatively lightweight exoplanets, only a few times more massive than Earth (now known by the term Super-Earth), are known as well; statistical studies now indicate that they actually outnumber giant planets while recent discoveries have included Earth-sized and smaller planets and a handful that appear to exhibit other Earth-like properties. There also exist planetary-mass objects that orbit brown dwarfs and other bodies that “float free” in space not bound to any star; however, the term “planet” is not always applied to these objects.

The discovery of extrasolar planets, particularly those that orbit in the habitable zone where it is possible for liquid water to exist on the surface (and therefore also life), has intensified interest in the search for extraterrestrial life. Thus, the search for extrasolar planets also includes the study of planetary habitability, which considers a wide range of factors in determining an extrasolar planet’s suitability for hosting life.

Dr. Summers’ teammates consist of Alex Panka and Prabal Saxena. Both of these students attend GMU and are enthusiastic about the project. We asked about each of them and we made some startling findings. This is what we discovered:

Prabal Saxena

Prabal Saxena

Prabal Saxena is a PhD student in the SPACS Department at George Mason University. Prabal is the Observatory TA at George Mason University and helps run the Observatory. He just finished a 2 year NSF GK-12 SUNRISE Fellowship where he helped teach science to elementary school students in high-needs areas and was recently named an “Astronomy Ambassador” by the American Astronomical Society. He received a Bachelor’s in Physics from Columbia University where he did research work with Caleb Scharf.

His research work at GMU is primarily in the topics of Exoplanets, Planetary Atmospheres and Planetary Science. His thesis work focuses on a class of newly discovered planets called “Heated SuperEarths”. In particular he is looking at how heated atmospheres may affect the orbital dynamics of SuperEarths that are tidally locked to their host star. Prabal also does research work related to the Pluto-Charon system and the use of special time series techniques that may be used to detect Exomoons.

Alex Panka

Alex Panka

Alex Panka began doing research in elliptical galaxy evolution at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst with Paolo Cassata, a former post doc. We observed elliptical galaxy collision rates, trying to establish a robust explanation on how and why these galaxies evolve. After completing two internships funded by MIT, he wrote his Senior Thesis on this topic. In 2011, he graduated UMass-Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in Physics and Astronomy.

The following fall he began his graduate studies at George Mason University in the Physics PhD program. Alex decided to change his research topic to exoplanets (planets in other solar systems). Alex stated ” I was pleased to hear that one of the professors, Dr. Summers, and a current graduate student, Prabal Saxena, were also interested in studying exoplanets. For the past several months, we have been collaborating on this topic. More specifically, we are studying very hot Super-Earths, which are rocky exoplanets, up to 10 times the mass of Earth, and orbit extremely close to their own Sun. The surface temperatures on these planets will most likely exceed 1,000 Kelvin (over 3 times the surface temperature of Earth), and may cause crustal evaporation. As a result, these exoplanets could contain atmospheres made out of metals and silicates. We expect to get a paper out by early spring 2013. I am currently in my second year of the PhD program.”

The Arts and Entertainment Magazine is extremely excited about this news and looks to share the GMU team’s news with all of our readers this Spring.

SPECIAL NOTE: Our publication is now reaching out to colleges across the country and asking them to follow George Mason University’s lead and take up the challenge that our publisher set forth in December 2012 (see the ‘Science’ section). We also intend to reach out to NASA and aerospace companies across America, and around the world.