For the past two years, astronomy major Marshall Johnson ’11 used the Van Vleck Observatory’s 24-inch Perkin Telescope to study the transits of “exoplanets,” or planets outside our solar system that orbit another star.
His study, “First Results from the Wesleyan Transiting Exoplanet Program,” explains a refined orbital period of a newly-discovered planet named WASP-33b (Wide Angle Search for Planets). Ultimately, Johnson may prove that he’s discovered another planet, WASP-33c.
“Here in Connecticut, with clouds and haze, we don’t have the best observing conditions, but I was still able to obtain high-quality data using our modest-sized telescope,” Johnson says.
For his efforts, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) awarded Johnson a Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Award, which “recognizes exemplary research by undergraduate and graduate students.” Awardees are honored with a Chambliss medal and a certificate. He received the medal and certificate during the AAS’s annual meeting and poster session Jan. 10–13 in Seattle, Wash.
Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy, initiated the Wesleyan Transiting Exoplanet Program in 2008.
“We in the Astronomy Department are very proud of Marshall’s accomplishment,” Redfield says. “He is an expert observer, and made great progress improving the quality of the exoplanet light curves. He’s also an excellent mentor to the younger students.”
Johnson joined Redfield’s research group in January 2009, focusing his studies on the data reduction of exoplanet transits. Transits occur when an exoplanet passes between its home star and Earth, blocking about 1 percent of the starlight. Johnson uses observations of transits primarily to search for transit timing variations.
In 2010, Johnson applied for and received a $4,500 NASA Connecticut Space Grant Award that he used as a stipend for summer research at Wesleyan. He worked with Redfield on the exoplanet transit observations that would ultimately become the foundation for his senior thesis work.
Johnson, who was one of seven undergraduate students in the country honored with the Chambliss Award, is currently collaborating with astronomers at several other institutions to obtain additional data on his transit timing research efforts.
“Several astronomers at the AAS meeting were impressed with the quality of observations we could get here at Wesleyan. I can see the infrastructure for an important exoplanet program developing here at Wesleyan, and Marshall has been an important part of the effort,” Redfield says.