Students, faculty and astronomy lovers gathered once again for an evening hilltop “Star Party” at College of the Canyons’ Canyon Country campus on Friday.
The semi-annual event was held for its 26th time and welcomed Jennifer Burt, an extreme precision investigative scientist for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, as its guest speaker.
Burt’s presentation focused on research on exoplanets, or planets outside the solar system, and how recent advances in technology have contributed to learning more about them.
As recently as the late 1990s, scientists only knew about a handful of planets outside the solar system, but now there are over 5,000 confirmed exoplanets.
Burt said the process of learning about and studying planets in other neighborhoods came to be by first examining our own.
“So our understanding of planets, our thoughts on how they form and evolve, what makes them look and act the way they do nowadays has for decades, if not centuries, been based on the planets in our solar system,” said Burt. “We’ve worked really, really hard to understand how these planets work and from these missions, from ground-based observations, we have put together a pretty solid concept of how planets evolve.”
Burt said scientists generally classify planets into two categories: gas planets and rocky planets. The examination of small planets orbiting bright, nearby stars has shed light on interior compositions (what planets are made of) and the makeup of their atmosphere.
This is all being done in an effort to reach NASA’s eventual goal of imaging Earth-like planets orbiting the “Goldilocks zone” of sun-like stars. In other words, planets that could potentially support life.
Humans, however, will most likely never see any of these habitable planets — the closest one is 16 light years away, meaning that even with the fastest current probe, traveling at 35,800 mph, it would take nearly 300,000 years to get there.
NASA’s goal is to simply take a photo of it one day, but until then scientists like Burt have other ways of studying these planets — such as measuring a star’s “wobbles,” or how a planet affects a star, to determine a planet’s mass.
Anthony Michaelides, dean of campus services and operations at COC, said having the community get back together to hear someone like Burt speak is always a treat.
“We’ve been doing this for years. I’ve been doing it for eight years and just excited to open up the campus to the community, having the community on campus is exciting,” said Michaelides. “They get to see not only the new facilities, but also our students and our faculty putting on a show at the activity tables, they get to see our local astronomy clubs showing off their telescopes and showing their expertise.”
Like previous Star Parties, the event was a three-in-one — part astronomy enthusiast gathering, part science fair and part lecture.
Ryan Theule, vice president of the Canyon Country campus, said while the event is designed for students, all attendees can take advantage of everything it has to offer.
“We want to shine a light on science and instructional excellence at the Canyon Country campus … and we want students to discover it can be well supported here,” said Theule.