For years, distant stars were thought to be planet-free, but we now know they have rings of exoplanets. Sara Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanet characterization. In a Google Hangout with reporter Andrea Vasquez, Seager discusses the importance of not only charting these exoplanets, but also naming them.
What are exoplanets and how do we name them?
For years, distant stars were thought to be planet-free.
But we now know they have rings of exoplanets.
Sara Seager is a pioneer in the field of exoplanet characterization.
And her TED Talk titled 'The Search for Planets Beyond Our Solar System' was viewed by more than a million people.
Here in a Google Hangout with reporter Andrea Vasquez, Seager discusses the importance of not only charting these exoplanets but also naming them.
Sara Seager, thanks for joining us.
Great to be with you, Andrea.
First, can you tell me, what is an exoplanet?
What are these things that we're making such an effort to research?
An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star other than the sun.
If you get to look up at the sky at night, well, we think that each one of those stars has planets.
Every star is a sun.
How would we relate that to our own solar system to give sort of a context or a point of reference?
Our sun has planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, et cetera.
And so all those other stars out there are also suns.
And they also should have planets, as well.
I mean, would you believe that astronomers have found thousands of planets?
And the most amazing thing so far is that not a single one of them is like our solar system.
In terms of atmosphere and dynamics?
Like, for example, they might have a Jupiter where Mercury would be.
Or they might have an Earth that is so close to the star.
These planets usually get names that are some combination of letters and numbers that probably no one knows other than you and your colleagues.
But why make this effort to give them more accessible names?
For thousands of years, since the time of the Greek philosophers, people have literally wondered about the stars and if there are planets out there.
So I think it's mostly a way, like, to share with the public, 'Hey, we have these great new objects.
What should we call them?'
And how are you choosing these sort of nicknames that are being submitted?
Well, in this particular case, it was officially organized by a group called the International Astronomical Union.
And believe it or not, they have been responsible for organizing names of asteroids and of new objects found in our solar system.
And they let organizations register and then propose names for a subset of planets, planets that are well-known and well-studied.
And after, that they actually let the public vote on it.
And they got something like 600,000 votes.
Any individual from the public can go on the website and vote for the proposed names.
So I imagine they'll do this again in the future, because there are way more planets out there.
Looks like there's plenty of voting ahead of us.
We think every star has a planet.
And in our night sky, we have thousands of stars.
And our Milky Way Galaxy, a collection of stars that our sun is part of, has hundreds of billions of stars.
So, in time, if we find all those planets, it will be a huge process to name them all and probably a struggle to remember all of those names.
And you and your team have been working on a project to be able to see those planets a little better.
Can you explain what you've been doing?
Well, what we want to do is block out the starlight so we can see the planet directly.
Now, our Earth -- You know, we see the sun every day.
It's big and bright in our sky.
But the problem of looking for another Earth is that that sun or that star is so bright and big.
And it's actually 10 billion times brighter than the planet is.
And to see that planet, it would be like asking someone, 'Can you make a measurement to 10 decimal places?'
And so what a team I've been leading is doing is we're creating a special light-blocking technique that can block out the starlight to 10 decimal places so that we can see the planet directly.
And this technique involves a very specially shaped screen.
We didn't invent the technique.
People have thought about it for many decades.
We call it the starshade.
And the starshade is literally a specially shaped screen that would go in space.
And it would be like putting your hand up to block the sun.
And that screen would fly in space, and the telescope somewhere else, like, that would be eye, would be formation flying with the screen.
So it's blocking the glare.
Exactly, blocking the glare so that no starlight at all enters the telescope.
This model of the starshade...
...which actually is a 1% scale model.
See how the petals are very specially shaped?
It's like a giant flower.
And the starshade actually is shaped in that very special way because it helps block out the starlight precisely.
And believe it or not, that starshade is only 1% scale.
That means the starshade would be 100 times bigger or literally about 30 meters in diameter.
That's 100 feet in diameter.
Is it deployed at its full size?
And how do you line it up to where it needs to be?
How to line it up is something we're working on.
And don't forget, we know how to dock at the space station, the International Space Station.
You know, astronauts go there.
And we send up supplies.
So we know how to line things up.
But we don't yet know how to line them up at such vast distances.
So it's something we're working on.
Well, we can't wait to see what you come up with.
Well, thank you.
Thanks for joining us.
Thanks a lot.