PAHS Science Club Attends UW Lecture

PAHS Science Club Attends UW Lecture
PAHS Science Club attends UW Lecture

Thanks to support from the YMCA, 12 Science Club students attended Dr. David Charbonneau’s lecture “How to Find an Inhabited Exoplanet” at the University of Washington October 16. Back in 2007 Dr. Charbonneau was named Discover Magazine’s “Scientist of the Year” and Port Angeles High School students have been following his career ever since. Dr. Charbonneau's research focuses on the detection and characterization of exoplanets with the goal of studying inhabited worlds. He led the team that made the first detection of the passage of an exoplanet across its parent star; the first detection of an exoplanet atmosphere; and the first detection of light emitted by a planet outside the solar system.

The first exoplanets were discovered using the Doppler shift due to stellar “wobble” caused by the orbiting planet. Dr Charbonneau then used the transit method for the first time to discover a very large exoplanet – using a 4-inch telescope in a parking lot! The Doppler method helps determine a planet’s mass while the transit method helps determine its diameter – put the two together and you can determine the planet’s density, thus telling you if it is a gas giant or Earthlike terrestrial planet.

We have begun to find the closest transiting Earths, and we are planning to study their atmospheres with the next generation of powerful telescopes. The Kepler Space Telescope used the transit method to discover over 5,000 exoplanets and TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) will likely discover many more. Dr Charbonneau is focusing his search for Earthlike planets around red dwarf stars because red dwarfs are the most common star in the galaxy, and there’s at least 1 habitable planet for every 4 red dwarfs. The search for atmospheric biomarkers such as oxygen will be humanity’s first attempt to answer the great question: “Are we alone?”

Dr Charbonneau was a very personable lecturer, answering questions from the audience for half an hour with a great sense of humor and always at the audience’s level of understanding. He stayed after the lecture to talk some more, including answering a question from Science Club members Daniel Weaver and Linus Waddell. Students had a great time and were excited about the lecture all the way home!