2017 Apr: Our citizen-science K2 research program with Zooniverse has gone live. In this project, we aim to use K2 to measure the intrinsic occurrence rates of different types of planets orbiting different types of stars. Are small planets (like Venus) more common than big ones (like Saturn)? Are short-period planets (like Mercury) more common than those on long orbits (like Mars)? Do planets more commonly occur around stars like the sun, or around the more numerous cooler, smaller "red dwarfs"? We hope you will join the team and help us in our exoplanet exploration!
2016 Jul: Our team has just announced the discovery of hundreds of
planet candidates from K2, including over 100 fully validated
planets. These true, bona fide planets (no longer mere candidates!)
provide an excellent laboratory for measuring planet masses (via RVs
and TTVs), atmospheric composition (with HST and JWST), and for
studying planetary habitability. Read all about the new results
online here, here, here,
or read the full
Also of interest is my recent invited review of Observations of Exoplanet Atmospheres. Detailed atmospheric characterization of exoplanets provides the best hope for distinguishing their makeup, and the only hope for understanding the interplay between initial composition, chemistry, dynamics and circulation, and disequilibrium processes. This article gives an observer's perspective on the current understanding of extrasolar planet atmospheres prior to the considerable advances expected from the next generation of observing facilities. Atmospheric processes of both transiting and directly imaged planets are discussed, including molecular and atomic abundances, cloud properties, thermal structure, and planetary energy budgets. In the future we can expect a continuing and accelerating stream of new discoveries, which will fuel the ongoing exoplanet revolution for many years to come.
2015 Jan: Surveys for new planets using the transit and radial velocity techniques reveal the high frequency with which small, short-period planets occur around main sequence stars. However, only a few of these smaller planets can be easily observed to characterize their atmosphere; even fewer are known around low-mass M stars, though these planetary systems may be the most common in the Galaxy. Our team has just discovered three small planets orbiting a bright, nearby M star using data collected by K2, a new mission using the re-purposed Kepler spacecraft. We find that the system hosts three transiting planets, all with sizes just 1.5 to 2 times larger than the Earth. Thus these new planets likey straddle the transition region between rocky and increasingly gas-dominated compositions. With an orbital period ('years') of 45 days, the third planet receives roughly as much heat from its star as do Earth or Venus, placing the planet near its star's habitable zone and making it one of the coolest small planets known orbiting a nearby star. The bright, low-mass star makes this system an excellent laboratory to determine the planets' masses via Doppler spectroscopy and to constrain their atmospheric compositions via transit observations with the Hubble and James Webb Space Telescope. Download the paper or read all about it here.
Our analysis predicted that transit observations at shorter wavelengths would provide the best opportunity to discriminate between plausible scenarios. Indeed, a simultaneous and independent analysis using optical photometry shows strong evidence for Rayleigh scattering in GJ 3470b's atmosphere, consistent with an atmosphere dominated by a scattering haze. If this haze is not too optically thick, GJ 3470b's relatively deep primary transit, bright host star, and low density will permit a detailed characterization of its atmosphere via transmission spectroscopy during transit.
2012 June: The transiting hot Jupiter HD 209458b was the first known transiting planets, and is one of the best studied. Because it is one of the few transiting planets that was known during the Spitzer Space Telescope's cryogenic mission, HD 209458b has been characterized over a broader range of wavelengths than have most transiting planets. We recently conducted an archival analysis of all 24 micron observations of this planet to derive a homogeneous set of mid-infrared parameters for this system. Our analysis provides the most precise 24 micron eclipse measurement of any known planet; along with transit observations, our work demonstrates once again that this short-period planet's orbit is precisely consistent with zero eccentricity.
2011: The nearby star GJ 1214 hosts a planet intermediate in radius and mass between Earth and Neptune, resulting in some uncertainty as to its nature. We have observed this planet, GJ 1214b, during transit with the near-infrared NIRSPEC spectrograph on the Keck II telescope to characterize the planet's atmosphere. When taken in concert with constraints from other groups, our results support a consensus model in which the atmosphere of GJ 1214b contains significant H and He, but where methane is depleted. Our paper has been published in the Astrophysical Journal; you can access the official version (or free preprint) here, or read Caroline Morley's summary here on Astrobites.
2010: We report a new 24 micron phase curve for the planet upsilon Andromedae b, showing that the hottest part of the planet (at that wavelength) is shifted 80 degrees from the substellar point. This is a much larger shift than has been seen on other planets (ref1, ref2, ref3), and it's certainly not clear (at least, to me) what could be responsible for such a large shift of the planet's hot regions. See the Spitzer Press Release, or read the paper here.
My primary research interest lies in the field of exoplanetary formation, detection, and characterization. While at JPL I had the good fortune to work with Dr. Mark Swain of the JPL Exoplanet Center. Our work focused on ground-based spectroscopic observations of transiting extrasolar planets. By comparing observations in and out of secondary eclipse we hoped to be able to draw conclusions about the composition of the exoplanet atmosphere. A paper describing our results is in preparation, pending follow-up observations confirming our initial findings.
"The Gemini Planet Imager is the next generation adaptive optics instrument being built for the Gemini Telescope. The goal is to image extrasolar planets orbiting nearby stars." --(GPI website). The GPI is being constructed by a consortium of institutions including UCSC, UCLA, University of Victoria, Universite de Montreal, JPL, and probably a few others. It is scheduled to see "first light" on the Gemini South telescope sometime in 2010.At NASA/JPL I worked on GPI's backend wavefront calibration system, which will allow the measurement and removal of residual and non-common path wavefront errors in the GPI optics.
I contributed to several aspects of this exciting new facility, but spent most of my time working with the Planet Formation Instrument (PFI), the proposed high-contrast imaging spectrograph for TMT. PFI will ultimately achieve contrast levels of 108-109 at an inner working angle of only 33 milliarcseconds in H band, allowing the first detections and characterizations of mature, reflected-light jovian planets in significant numbers. Among other tasks, I used the stringent requirements set by PFI to "backwards design" the telescope system so that these ambitious goals will not be precluded. This resulted in the first referreed publication discussing the use of a specific high-contrast imaging method on an extremely large segmented telescope.