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Milton astronomy students first in the country to describe this planet

09-12_astronomy_1Using Internet-based telescopes and cameras, Milton astronomy students have been able to define and describe a new planet. They “watched” a star’s brightness dim and return, over time, indicating an eclipse of the star by one of its planets. Analyzing images of a star taken over a single night, they tracked a constant brightness that dimmed and then returned to its previous level. The star is known to professional astronomers as HAT-P-10. Students’ calculations, based in the percentage of light loss to the star over that time period, enabled them to determine numerous characteristics of the orbiting planet. John Brophy, Lily Halpern, Sabrina Katz, and John Mleczko (Class I) and Shan Lin (Class II) note that their planet is a jovian planet (like Jupiter): large, and gaseous rather than primarily rock.

Astronomers have detected more than 300 extrasolar planets, but these planets are too distant and too dim to be seen directly. One of the ways to find these planets is by securing evidence of transit and eclipses—locating planets orbiting other stars by observing the small dip in a star’s brightness during the planet’s orbit.

Observing the effect a planet has on the star it is orbiting can reveal information about the planet’s orbital period, orbital distance, orbital shape, mass, radius and density.

The Milton students used recommendations from astronomers at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics about when to take pictures of stars in hopes of seeing evidence of an eclipse or transit. They hypothesized that if they took pictures over the right time period they would be able to gather evidence of an extrasolar planet.

The chance to use telescope-based investigations of real-world, cutting edge astronomical questions developed from a project at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. Jim Kernohan of Milton’s science department, who teaches the astronomy course, was one of several teachers from across the country who worked during the summer of 2009 at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics testing and reacting to instruments, protocols and materials being developed for the project. Jim is pilot testing those materials with his class this year.

“This discovery is groundbreaking in many ways,” Jim Kernohan says. “We have confirmed and described one of the more than 300 extrasolar planets astronomers had detected. We were the first class in the country to accomplish that, and we paved the way for other classes. We worked along with astronomer Ruth Krumhansl and Roy Gould of the Harvard Center to determine the calculations that would most accurately measure this planet. The whole process of finding and describing these planets is only 10 years old. We’ve gone from the theoretical to the actual in that short time. Thinking about Milton students at the forefront of this science is pretty exciting.”