Tuesday, May 23, 2017

URSP Student Jenna Cann Researches Jupiter-sized Exoplanets

My name is Jenna Cann and I am a senior studying astronomy. One of the things that initially got me interested in astronomy, and my OSCAR project, is the idea that there are so many other worlds and places out in the Universe that are so different from what we see in everyday life on Earth.  My current project deals with Hot Jupiters, which are Jupiter-sized exoplanets that are orbiting very close to their host stars.  Despite having a sizable atmosphere that could feasibly circulate the heat this planet receives from its star, astronomers have found that there is a large day-night side temperature change – sometimes up to 1000K in magnitude.  My project deals with trying to find a physical mechanism to explain this.

This project has helped me confirm that I do want to continue on to a research-based PhD program.  The skills I’ve honed over the course of this semester, in modeling and theory, will prove invaluable as I start research at a higher level.  Besides working with my advisor here at GMU, Dr. Michael Summers, I also collaborate with an advisor, Dr. Prabal Saxena, at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center.  Visiting Goddard and working with my advisor there has provided me with several contacts that could be research collaborators in the future.

My project consists of several different parts, using both theory and models, so on any given week I spend almost equal amounts of time working out pen and paper derivations as I do running transit simulations or plotting real K2 data from the Kepler telescope.

This semester, I learned a lot about energy transfer and tidal processes in atmospheric physics.  I’ve also learned that a lot of the questions scientists are looking to answer about exoplanets were the same ones asked decades ago about Titan, Europa, and other planets and moons in our Solar System.  Knowing that we now know the answers to those questions with respect to Solar System bodies, despite them seeming so out of reach decades ago, it is extremely inspiring to think of what we can learn from the thousands of new exoplanets we’ve discovered so far.