Looking to go for a night out, and being the science geek I am, I decided to attend a presentation at my local observatory on Saturday night. I arrived early and started the evening gawking at the main telescope, a behemoth in a coat of yellow paint mounted on an old gun turret. Unfortunately, there was no actual observing that night: late winter weather is a fickle thing. The presentation itself made up for that in terms of excitement. It was given by an astronomy and physics professor, hosted by the local Astronomical Society, and featured the latest information on our search for extrasolar planets.
In between occasional cheesy jokes, I learned about the difference between the Doppler and Transit methods of planetary detection. The Doppler method measures the color shift of light from stars: as they move in our direction the light waves are compressed and appear bluish, and as the star moves away they are stretched and appear reddish. Orderly patterns in this shifting can reveal the wobbling effect planets exert through gravity upon their home star. The Transit method measures the brightness of stars: planets passing between us (the observers) and the star will have a regular effect on their star’s brightness, dimming it periodically.
The Kepler telescope has detected thousands of extrasolar planets utilizing the Transit method, a hugely exciting prospect for astronomers (considering the fact that extrasolar planets only started being discovered infrequently in the 90s).
I’ll share two websites shared with us that are fun to play with and look through:
The University of Colorado’s My Solar System online simulator tool (craft different versions of solar systems with up to four bodies).
And Kepler’s Tally of Planets by the New York Times (see solar systems in action).
Our presenter left us with the advice to look out for future developments in this field: astronomers may be able to detect more Earthlike planets as time passes (larger or more massive planets are naturally easier to detect, so as methods are refined we will start finding more planets similar to our own). We may even start to be able to detect the presence of atmospheres.
If you’re looking for new science-related events to attend, I encourage you to find nearby Astronomical Societies and see if they have a schedule of lectures or presentations. The one I attended was free. This site has a search function for astronomy clubs based on location.
Check for observatories around your home, too. They’ll have public observation nights and events.
Due to the nature of astronomy, check the topic of any event you decide to attend before bringing children. There were a few in the audience at the extrasolar planets presentation, and they seemed just on the cusp of the correct age to understand most of what was going on. Some events will be better for younger children (those focusing on planets in our solar system being a good example) and some for older (the next event hosted by this Astronomical Society is on wormholes, recommended for middle school age and up).
To readers: this was the first event of this nature I have attended, and I plan on going to more. Have you been to any presentations or lectures put on by local astronomers? Do you have recommendations on topics to look for?
Image: Hobbs Observatory