UW Professors Receive Grants To Help Find Exoplanets

Jan 4, 2018

Credit NASA

The University of Wyoming’s Physics and Astronomy Department has received two grants for research related to finding exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars. Dr. Michael Pierce and Dr. Hannah Jang-Condell received grants from Indiana University and NASA worth almost $1 million. The funds will primarily be used to build a spectrograph, an instrument that can gather detailed information about star movement near planets.

Jang-Condell said the spectrograph doesn’t let them see the exoplanets, but it does record details of stars that the planet orbits, and the precise velocities at which the stars are moving. This particular method for detecting exoplanets uses the Doppler Shift Effect, which can be described as the way humans hear a car coming towards them. 

"It’s a higher pitch as it’s coming towards you, and the drop in pitch is as it’s moving away from you," said Jang-Condell. 

In the same way the pitch changes, a star’s velocity changes as planet orbits it, and the spectrograph can record those speeds. 

“The spectrograph itself you might be able to fit on your dining room table, but part of what we need to do to make it really precise, we need? to make it extremely stable,” said Jang-Condell. “So we need to build a very stable chamber for it, so stable it terms of temperature, and making sure there’s no air flow going through it.”

The spectrograph will be housed at the Wyoming Infrared Observatory on the summit of Jelm Mountain southwest of Laramie.