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Inspiring Stories – Studying Alien Worlds Through ORBYTS

19 Jun 2020, 10:31 UTC
Inspiring Stories – Studying Alien Worlds Through ORBYTS

Studying Alien Worlds Through ORBYTS

In this EPEC Inspiring Outreach Story, Billy Edwards of UCL describes how he is bringing cutting-edge exoplanet research into UK classrooms.

Last year I became involved in the Original Research by Young Twinkle Students (ORBYTS) programme. This educational scheme aims to allow secondary school pupils to work on new, exciting research linked to the Twinkle Space Mission under the tuition of PhD students and other young scientists (http://www.twinkle-spacemission.co.uk/edutwinkle/). To achieve this, ORBYTS connects science researchers with secondary schools, where, through fortnightly school visits over an academic year, the students are taught undergraduate-level physics. These classes allow the researchers to engage students with the subjects they themselves are studying. The ultimate goal of this project is to give students the opportunity to use this new knowledge to contribute towards publishable research. 

The core idea is that pupils get hands on experience of scientific research and work closely with young scientists. By bringing together schools and researchers, the programme aims to not only improve student aspirations and scientific literacy, but also help to address diversity challenges by dispelling harmful stereotypes, challenging any preconceptions about who can become a scientist and I found the relative informality of the classes to a powerful way of connecting with the students. While projects have been run on a number of topics, mine focused on one of the core science targets for the Twinkle mission: exoplanets.

We currently know of over 4000 planets, which orbit stars other than our Sun. These range from small, cool rocky worlds such as those in the TRAPPIST-1 system to massive, hot gaseous planets such as WASP-76 b where it is thought to rain iron. However, while we have had some tentative insights, much about these alien worlds remains a mystery. Future space-based telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, Twinkle and Ariel will use spectroscopy to study their atmospheres, detecting the molecules present to give us a deep understanding of the planet. 

However, in recent years, a problem has begun to develop. With so many known planets, keeping track of the exact time at which they are going to transit has become harder and harder. In the coming years, this is only going to get more difficult as surveys such TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, will find thousands more exoplanets. The only way to keep the ephemerides of these planets fresh is to frequently re-observe them and this will require an increasing amount of telescope time.

In this project, we used a robotic ground-based telescope network to observe planets which had high uncertainties in their orbital parameters. The students were given free rein to choose the planets they wished to observe and then planned the observations before reducing and analysing the subsequent data. However, given the expected number of planet discoveries, professional telescope networks may not be enough to keep the transit times fresh.

Luckily, help is at hand in the form of citizen astronomers. As many of these planets are around bright stars, even modest telescopes can capture the transit event and in recent years the number of citizen astronomers contributing light curves has increased drastically. As part of this ORBYTS project we also analysed data obtained by a number of citizen astronomers and contributing to the ExoClock initiative (www.exoclock.space). The students approached the project with real enthusiasm, analysing the transits of several planets. This work was recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS) with all the students and citizen astronomers as authors. 

For me, this programme was challenging but extremely rewarding. Teaching your first class is always a scary moment, even when it is on a topic you know well. However, the classes soon became the highlight of my week and, as the programme progressed, the increased participation and engagement by the students was hugely gratifying. While they may not all become astrophysicists, it is my hope that this project has inspired them to embark on scientific careers or, at the very least, to make them consider their place in the universe.

Do you like this story and want more? Browse our archive of EPEC Inspiring Stories and get inspired!

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