Sunday 19 August 2018

Star-Gayzing ... To Seek Out New Worlds

In August 1988 an article was published in “The Astrophysical Journal” called “A Search for Substellar Companions to Solar-type Stars”. This presented the first evidence of the scientific detection of a planet orbiting another star, an exoplanet. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of this discovery let’s look at some significant contributions members of the lgbt community have made in the hunt for new worlds.

One of the earliest men to speculate on the existence of exoplanets was the philosopher and spy Giordano Bruno. I featured him as one of my Extraordinary Lives in 2015. He got into a lot of trouble with the Roman Catholic Church about his theory on the existence of multiple Christs. His theory about an infinite number of stars and an infinite number of planets caused no problem to all to the church. Giordano theorised that in a Christian universe God would send a Christ to every infinite planet. The Church taught that there will only ever be one Christ and said an infinite number was heresy. They accepted his science without question, but scientists at the time didn’t.

Sir Isaac Newton wrote that the stars were just like our Sun and were all at the centre of similar systems like our own, though he stopped short of using the word “planets”.

Many scientists and philosophers before and since have theorised about exoplanets. Our present generation of scientists includes openly lgbt astronomers in the hunt for other worlds. Here are three of them.

The Planet Hunters : (left to right) Wladimir Lyra, Rebecca Oppenheimer, B. Scott Gaudi.

One of the problems facing astronomers is how to determine what is a planet and what isn’t. I mentioned the problem earlier this year in my article “Discovering Dwarves”. Astronomer Dr. Rebecca Oppenheimer led a team that discovered the first brown dwarf star in 1994. The data that was gathered has helped astronomers tell the difference between a brown dwarf star and a giant gas planet. It was her discovery of the brown dwarf which led Dr. Oppenheimer to concentrate on planet hunting.

Rebecca Oppenheimer is currently the principal investigator of Project 1640 based at the American Museum of Natural History where she works as professor, curator and chair of the Astrophysics Department. Project 1640 is an imaging system which uses special techniques on images collected from Mount Palomar Observatory near San Diego in California.

At the time of its foundation the project’s contrast imaging system was the most advanced in the world and was cannibalised from ground-breaking technology developed for a previous project called the Lyot Project. Rebecca Oppenheimer was a leading member of that project as well.

Project 1640 and the Lyot Project before it used a technique called coronography. Basically, this is a method of creating an artificial eclipse when instruments are pointing at a star. The star is made to dim to an extent whereby any object orbiting it, such as a planet, if any, is easier to detect.

Another technique is gravitational microlensing in which the minute gravitational pull of a star can effect the light coming from a more distant star. Ripples in data can mean a planet is orbiting the star in front. One of the leaders in this technique is Dr. B. Scott Gaudi, Professor of Discovery and Space Exploration at Ohio State University. In 2008 he led the team that discovered the existence of the first Jupiter-Saturn-type exoplanets. This was of interest to another field of research – the search for extraterrestrial life.

In our solar system Jupiter and Saturn were instrumental in stabilising the habitable zone in which Earth orbits and in pulling away lots of asteroids that might crash into it. Perhaps these new exoplanets (with the cumbersome names of OGLE-2006-BLG-109Lb and OGLE-2006-BLG-109Le) mean there could be an Earth-like, life-bearing planet just waiting to be discovered.

Scott Gaudi has received many awards for his work, as has Rebecca Oppenheimer. One particular award, a grant from the National Science Foundation, allowed Scott to use the outreach component of the award to promote astronomy and astrophysics to the lgbt community. When he was growing up as a young gay teenager in Illinois Scott had no gay role models and science was a means to overcome doubts and stresses of being a gay youngster, much as some lgbt athletes did with sport. The award meant that Scott could present himself and others as being accepted and successful in the world of science and openly lgbt.

Back in October 2016 I wrote an article about Dr. Wladimir Lyra’s attempt to rename some exoplanets. The focus of his scientific work, however, is not so much on looking for planets as working out how planetary systems are formed. Using computer simulations he has developed scenarios whereby it is possible to theorise how planets form out of dust clouds around all types of star. This has helped to determine which stars are likely to have planetary systems and compares the data with actual observations.

Doctors Rebecca Oppenheimer, B. Scott Gaudi and Wladimir Lyra are just three of the lgbt astronomers who are involved in the hunt for new worlds and are encouraging the next generation.

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