All posts for the month September, 2015

The Super Blood Moon from Boise State's campus.

The Super Blood Moon from Boise State’s campus.

We had a HUGE event last night on campus at Boise State. No precise estimates, but I’d guess we had a few hundred people show up for the eclipse, as well as Lacey Darrow of Channel 6. It was an amazing experience. Thanks to everyone for attending.

Our Pony Up Campaign made its initial goal on Saturday morning, only halfway through the campaign. So we’re trying for a stretch goal of $2,000 to pay for wifi at our observatory. Wifi will significantly enhance our public outreach events and instructional efforts. It would also allow us to more easily stream live footage from our telescopes during public events. The campaign will run until Oct. 14.

And thanks to Lynne Barnes for supporting us.

Lunar_eclipse_April_15_2014_California_Alfredo_Garcia_Jr1Join the Boise State Physics and Astronomy Club on the top of the Brady State Garage on Boise State’s Campus to view the last total lunar eclipse until 2018.

The eclipse occurs on Sunday, Sep 27, and the viewing event runs from 7pm till midnight. The Boise State Physics Dept. will provide telescopes, and visitors are encouraged to bring chairs. Contact Prof. Brian Jackson with questions.

And thanks to Pam Robbins, Susan Steffes-Ferri, Memo Cordova, & Mike Kennedy for supporting our PonyUp Campaign to bring back the Boise State Observatory.

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 10.29.37 AM

As of this morning, we are halfway to our goal of $8,000. And in only the first week. Thanks very much to all those who have given, including Barbara Hatcher and Jim Ogle.

Please talk to your friends and family and share your enthusiasm for our project and for astronomy. Your support means a lot to me personally and will help us usher in an amazing resource for astronomy education here in Boise.

CO_CGKlUkAAPKhCHad a great time last night at Flying M Coffee in Nampa. I gave a short talk about my research and recent developments in exoplanet astronomy.

Then I opened the floor up for questions — the best part of the night. Lots of really great questions about alien life, what exoplanets are like, when will we find life.

One question that stood out for me was asked by a young woman about how we study the composition of exoplanet atmospheres. I talked about the promise of the James Webb Space Telescope to measure transits in different colors. And there was a moment of genuine awe and surprise I could see on her face. It was really great.

As of this writing, our campaign has broken $1600 — very exciting. Thanks to Cindy Hall and April and Seth Masarik for their support.

Screen Shot 2015-09-15 at 11.31.24 AMAfter only one day of our PonyUp Campaign to Bring Back the Boise State Observatory, we’re already more than 15% there.

We’ve had some press on the project from several sources, including the local Fox 9 channel. Very exciting.

Special thanks to our donors Christian Lybrook,┬áRyan Lujan, LaVona Andrew, Marlene & Jim O’Tousa, Rick and Valerie Flores, and Charles Jewell.

Image of 51 Eri b (indicated by arrow) in the near-infrared, 1.65 microns.

Image of 51 Eri b (indicated by arrow) in the near-infrared, 1.65 microns.

A little behind the times on this one, but we finally managed to discuss the exciting discovery of a young, Jupiter-like planet in a Jupiter-like orbit by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) team at journal club today.

Using high-precision optical instrumentation and some sophisticated data processing to block out the host star’s glare, the team was able to directly image the planet 51 Eri b in infrared wavelengths.

No mean feat, given that the star is more than a million times brighter than the planet and is only one ten-thousandth of a degree away in the sky. This is a little like trying to see the glow of a firefly in the end zone against the glare of a football stadium light from the 50 yard line when the two are separated by the width of a human hair*.

51 Eri b is only 20 million years old, so it’s much hotter and glows much more brightly than our own Jupiter-like planets, making it easier to see. Jupiter-like planets tend to cool in a more-or-less well-behaved way that depends partially on their masses — bigger planets start out hotter. However, the planet is much cooler than predicted by some planet formation models, which provides strong constraints on the ways in which gas giants form.

So using 51 Eri b’s estimated temperature, 700 K (400 C) and age, Macintosh et al. put its mass somewhere between 2 and 12 Jupiter masses — solidly in the planet category.

The GPI observations also show us the planet has methane and water in its atmosphere. In fact, the methane detection for this planet is the most prominent so far seen for an exoplanet, according to Macintosh.

The GPI instrument is positioned to find many more planets like this one in the coming years, so expect lots of exciting results in the next few years.

Today’s journal club attendees included Jennifer Briggs, Hari Gopalakrishnan, Tyler Gordon, and Emily Jensen.

*Macintosh et al. estimate 51 Eri b’s luminosity is about 1 millionth that of our Sun. Wikipedia indicates the star 51 Eri is about 5 times brighter than our Sun. I had a lot of trouble finding the luminosity of a firefly — this page is the best I could do, and it estimates that one firefly emits about 2 mW. Stadium lights look to emit about 1,000 W, so that gives my factor of one million in luminosity.

51 Eri b has a projected separation from its host star of 13 AU, and the star is about 96 light years away, giving an angular separation of about 2 microradians. A human hair is about 100 microns across, so it would subtend 2 microradians from a distance of about 50 yards.