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Physics majors Brendan Hagan and Adrien Thormann, work to directly image planets around nearby stars at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Release date: May 03, 2010

The Department of Physics and Astronomy believes science is best learned, and mastered, through a combination of class work and hands- on research. Therefore, physics and astronomy faculty members are committed to promoting experiential learning outside of a classroom by involving students in collaborative scientific research on campus.

An important component of the Physics Major at Goucher College is collaborative research, as this provides students with hands-on experiences that one can only gain outside the classroom. During the Spring 2010 semester, physics majors Brendan Hagan and Adrien Thormann (both class of 2010) worked with Dr. Rémi Soummer of the nearby Space Telescope Science Institute to image planets around nearby stars (formally called "exoplanets").  Dr. Soummer is a world-renowned expert in the fields of optics and exoplanet detection, and has mentored Adrien and Brendan in an ambitious program to first reproduce the results of a competing collaboration, and then apply these techniques to other, nearby stars. Planets are very faint and close to their stellar hosts, and thus can only be directly imaged with extremely high- resolution imagers and hyper-sensitive data-analysis techniques.  As shown in the image montage below, the exoplanet HR 8799b (little white dot indicated in the bottom two panels) was only discernible from the signal of its parent star after many complicated steps, including masking out the star's signal while taking the image using the Hubble Space Telescope (top left), subtracting pairs of images to remove constant signal (top right), and removing an optimized model of how residual light from the star is spread out on the detector (bottom row).

Adrien and Brendan spent the last semester of their senior year completing the first stage of their research by demonstrating that without such intensive image processing, no planet detection is possible. They will continue to work with Dr. Soummer over the summer to implement the second phase of the project, by building and subtracting the optimized model of residual light.  Brendan will continue to work with Dr. Soummer for the duration of 2010, implementing this completed process on similar data to hunt for new exoplanets around nearby stars. At present, this technique is one of the only methods by which exoplanets can be directly observed.