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Astronomers take exoplanet hunting open-source

By Jessica Hall
If you’ve ever wanted to join the ranks of career scientists and academics who hunt for exoplanets using the world’s most powerful telescopes, your day has come. This week, an international team of astronomers including a delegation from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Yale released to the public a huge set of exoplanet-detecting observations taken with the radial velocity method. To demonstrate the utility of the data set, they used it to find more than 100 exoplanets, all within 100 parsecs of us. There’s even one orbiting a near neighboring star to our own Solar System, GJ 411, which lies about 8.1 light years from Earth.
The radial velocity method is “one of the most successful techniques for finding and confirming planets,” according to MIT, right up there with the transit method. Key to the radial velocity method is how it takes advantage of Newton’s third law: While a planet is influenced by the gravity of its parent star, it also exerts a proportionate and reciprocal pull on the star, causing it to “wobble” just a tiny little bit. Modern telescopes and sophisticated software can detect the tiny wobble the planet creates as its gravity pulls on the star.
The huge data set, taken over two decades by the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, is now available to the public. Along with the data, there’s an open-source software package to process the data and an online tutorial for how the whole thing works. Now you, too, can hunt exoplanets like an interstellar Indiana Jones. “One of our key goals in this paper is to democratize the search for planets,” explained team member Greg Laughlin, of Yale. “Anyone can download the velocities published on our website and use the open source Systemic software package and try fitting planets from the data.”

Exoplanets we know and love

By making the data public and getting it into a more user-friendly venue and format, the scientists hope to draw “fresh eyes” to the observations, which concern more than 1,600 nearby stars.
“This is an amazing catalog, and we realized there just aren’t enough of us on the team to be doing as much science as could come out of this dataset,” added team member Jennifer Burt, of MIT. Burt said they’re trying to shift toward a more community-oriented idea of how science is done, so that other people can access the data and see something interesting.
“I think this paper sets a precedent for how the community can collaborate on exoplanet detection and follow-up,” said team member Johanna Teske, of Carnegie Mellon. “With NASA’s TESS mission on the horizon, which is expected to detect 1,000+ planets orbiting bright, nearby stars, exoplanet scientists will soon have a whole new pool of planets to follow up.”

The paper (PDF) describing all those exoplanets is in the most recent issue of The Astronomical Journal.
Astronomers take exoplanet hunting open-source Reviewed by Chidinma C Amadi on 2:14 PM Rating: 5

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