Student Works on ‘Hot Jupiter’ NASA Project

Posted: January 15, 2014 at 5:00 am, Last Updated: January 16, 2014 at 6:43 am

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By Michele McDonald

Image of an exoplanet

This is an illustration of a star’s light filtering through the atmosphere of a planet. It’s how scientists determine what molecules exist in a transiting planet’s atmosphere.  Image courtesy of Korey Haynes

George Mason University graduate student Korey Haynes turned her love of sci-fi as a kid into real science as she helped a NASA project find traces of water in the atmospheres of “hot Jupiter” planets.

“I thought that everything about space was cool, and I liked everything dealing with science,” says Haynes, who is now working on a PhD in physics, of her younger self.

Astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., used the Hubble Space Telescope to study distant planets called exoplanets and published the results last month. Haynes reached out to planetary scientist Avi Mandell at Goddard, who was the lead author on the paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, to become involved in the project.

Korey Haynes

Korey Haynes in front of the Keck telescopes in Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Korey Haynes

“Working with dedicated and bright students such as Korey is a pleasure; she has done an excellent job in pushing this project forward from the very beginning,” Mandell says. “She has consistently provided new insights on the data analysis and interpretation, and her contributions played a critical role in producing these groundbreaking results.”

Exoplanets are an emerging field in astronomy. These exoplanets are composed mainly of gas, similar to the gas giant Jupiter in our solar system. They’re dubbed “hot Jupiters.”

The exoplanets Haynes studied are some 870 to 1,300 light years from Earth. In comparison, the sun, Earth’s star, is about eight light minutes from Earth. These exoplanets are so far away that scientists must use indirect methods to study them. One such way is to observe what happens when the planet passes in front of a star, causing the star to dim. Researchers look for clues in the planet’s clouds and hazes to find out more about its atmosphere. For more information, watch this NASA video.

While scientists thought there were traces of water on the distant gas giants, they didn’t have the proof they needed, Haynes says. “It wasn’t really a shock to find water. We were expecting it. But it was a lot of work to prove we had what we had gone looking for.”

Studying distant gas giants brings scientists a little closer to finding rocky planets such as those found in our solar system. “The discovery that everyone wants in the end is to find an Earth-like planet,” Haynes says. “We’re cutting our teeth on studying these big, bright planets.”

The exoplanets themselves are mysterious. “The planets did form in their star systems, just not as close to their star as we see them today,” Haynes explains. “It would be impossible for a gas giant to form so close to its star. So the idea is that they must have formed farther away from their stars, similar to our Jupiter, and then migrated in closer to their star at some point. We see many planets like this, but they don’t look like anything in our solar system, so astronomers were surprised when they first started discovering them.”

Haynes is helping to look for answers. “We’re adding little pieces to the puzzle, one piece at a time.”

And she’s helping to get the word out there about what scientists are discovering worlds away. “The study showed up on Reddit, and I chatted with people online,” Haynes says. “That was surreal but awesome.”

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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