Bookmark and Share

Spotlight Live: The Hunt for Other Worlds Heats Up

NOTE: Thanks to everyone who joined our discussion. AN INDEX OF QUESTIONS is listed below.

PLANET-HUNTING TELESCOPES have recently taken a huge leap in their ability to find “exoplanets,” or planets orbiting other stars. In just the past six months, astronomers have announced the discovery of more than 700 such worlds, bringing the total to more than 1700. These discoveries include the first Earth-size planet found in what’s called the habitable zone of a star, where liquid water could exist; the oldest known planet that could support life; and the first rocky “mega-Earth,” a planet that’s much like Earth except that it’s 17 times more massive.

On July 9, three exoplanet hunters came together to discuss the discovery boom, consider the next steps in the hunt for habitable worlds, and debate whether we’re likely to find alien life in the next decade.


About the Participants (left to right)

  • ZACHORY BERTA-THOMPSON – Dr. Berta-Thompson is the Torres Fellow for Exoplanetary Research at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. He hunts for exoplanets as a member of the MEarth Project, a survey to find small planets orbiting the closest, smallest stars.
  • BRUCE MACINTOSH – Dr. Macintosh is the principal investigator for the Gemini Planet Imager, which searches for planets from the Gemini South telescope. GPI recently snapped its first image, thereby producing the best-ever direct photo of a planet outside our solar system. Dr. Macintosh is also a Professor of Physics at Stanford University and a member of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology.
  • MARIE-EVE NAUD – Ms. Naud is the University of Montreal PhD student who led analysis that recently uncovered a previously unknown giant planet using infrared light. The planet, known as GU Pisces b, is one of the most unusual exoplanets found to-date, with a mass 10 times greater than Jupiter's and orbiting its star at 2,000 times the distance between Earth and our sun.
  • KELEN TUTTLE (moderator) – Ms. Tuttle is a freelance journalist with more than a decade of experience in science communications. Most recently, she served as Editor-in-Chief of Symmetry, a magazine dedicated to the science and culture of particle physics. Her fields of expertise also include astrophysics, biology and chemistry.

A Roundtable Discussion with Roger D. Blandford, Dimitar D. Sasselov and Louis E. Strigari

Planets simply adrift in space may not only be common in the cosmos; in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, their number may be in the quadrillions. Three experts discussed what this might mean, whether a nomad planet could drift close to our solar system, and how it is possible for a nomad planet to sustain life.


Your Questions

On July 9, three exoplanet hunters Zachory Berta-Thompson, Bruce Macintosh and Marie-Eve Naud came together to discuss the discovery boom, consider the next steps in the hunt for habitable worlds, and debate whether we're likely to find alien life in the next decade.

  • Can you explain what the MEarth project is and what it does? (1:55)
  • What is the significance of this new picture from the Gemini Planet Imager? (3:25)
  • How do you go about finding exoplanets? (5:50)
  • What do you think is the most amazing planetary discovery so far? (7:30)
  • What are the different methods that we use to discern planets orbiting other stars? (12:50)
  • How do you determine the number of planets that have been detected with each technique? (15:05)
  • How many exoplanets do we miss with these techniques? (17:05)
  • What other characteristics can we learn about exoplanets? (18:40)
  • Can we detect magnetic fields around exoplanets? (20:25)
  • How close are we to finding molecular oxygen in an exoplanet's atmosphere? (21:10)
  • How likely is it that we will find life on exoplanets within the next 10 years? (23:35)
  • Is there a planetary measurement you are excited about but can't make due to technology constraints? (27:50)
  • Is there another type of space telescope that might help directly view exoplanets? (31:10)
  • What is a question about exoplanets that you wish we could answer? (32:30)