2011 Summer Research – Jacob Gilbert, Swarthmore Collegejgilbert | July 5, 2011
Hi! I’m Jacob Gilbert, another one of the rising seniors in the department, majoring in Astrophysics. I’m working through the Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium at Swarthmore College with Professor Eric Jensen, studying the youngest exoplanets in the galaxy. We are working under the auspices of the Young Exoplanet Transit Initiative (YETI) to try to learn about planetary formation models. YETI uses over 20 different telescopes around the world to try to continuously monitor stars with orbiting exoplanets.
Here at Swarthmore we have been observing several stars; some have known exoplanets, whereas others are candidate stars that we are looking into further. When we observe these systems, we cannot directly view the planets. What we look for instead is how the brightness of a star changes with time. When a planet passes in front of a star, it transits the star, which appears dimmer to us. When the star passes to the side, it reflects light back at us in a subtle effect known as occultation. We are only looking at the transits, as our telescope is not sufficiently precise enough to measure the small increase in brightness caused by an occultation.
Most of the work I have been doing during the daytime has focused on writing code (unsurprisingly) to reduce the images taken at the Peter van de Kamp observatory here at Swarthmore. Since the code was written in IDL, I’ve mostly been fine-tuning my IDL coding skills, especially with regards to graphical interface. What started out as a simple image reduction code now reduces the data, performs aperture photometry and outputs a light curve. We’ve also been working with some new software called TAP (Transit Analysis Package) to fit planetary models to our transit data.
At night, however, I get to observe in Swarthmore’s wonderful new telescope. It is a 0.9m telescope with a 4K x 4K CCD. We installed a new filter wheel, and are in the process of making the system more automated by installing a weather detector that will shut down the dome in case of inclement weather. It has been very exciting to use the reduction code to produce light curves almost immediately after we have finished taking data, and to be able to see proof of planets around other stars!
I’ve been really enjoying living at Haverford- my first summer here- but working nearby. Philadelphia has been a really fun place to hang out: concerts, record hunting, food, and exploring in general. I also have to do research until after Haverford allows students to live on campus, so I’ll probably be living in Philly for a few weeks in August. A little annoying, but it should still be fun. This is my first summer research, and it has given me a great perspective on a possible future path for me. I’m still very unsure about what I want to do, but this has so far been a rewarding and exciting experience.