November 28, 2018

Physics staff member to give talk on volunteers observing exoplanets

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A staff member in the physics department at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will give a presentation this week on involving citizen scientists in an effort to observe planets outside our solar system.

Bob Baer, specialist in the Department of Physics, will address efforts of the Citizen CATE Experiment to observe exoplanets as they transit across neighboring stars. CATE stands for Continental-American Telescopic Eclipse Experiment, and the nationwide telescope network of citizen scientists played a major role in the 2017 total eclipse.

Presentation free and open to the public

Baer’s presentation is at 4 p.m. Friday in room 440 at the Neckers Building. It is free and open to the public. He will repeat the presentation during the meeting of the Astronomical Association of Southern Illinois, set for 6 p.m. on Dec. 10 at Pagliai’s Pizza in Carbondale.

Network spread throughout the country

CATE includes about 68 observation teams nationwide, roughly one every 40 miles along the path of the 2017 eclipse. Baer, who co-chaired SIU’s eclipse committee, acts as a coordinator for six CATE teams in the area. Those six teams included about 30 local volunteers.  

“CATE teams across the country were the core of observation sites providing outreach to visitors during the eclipse,” Baer said. “This was true locally, with teams at Pope County High School, Giant City State Park, Bald Knob Cross of Peace, SIU, and the Perryville, Missouri, airport.”

Citizen scientists provide valuable data

Exoplanets are defined as those that orbit stars other than our sun. The group is using the 80mm refractor telescope and camera system used for the Citizen CATE eclipse observations to do photo analysis of the stars when the planet moves in front of it.  

“Whenever a planet moves in front of a star relative to our observation point here on earth, we can see a very small dip in the light output from the star,” Baer said. “We are currently observing known transiting planets in this test phase. The planets are relatively large ones that block 1 to 2 percent of the host star's light.  They also have well defined orbits so we know when to look for them.”

The work allows the group to evaluate what it can do with telescopes and to classify the types of transits that members can detect with the CATE network.  

Get involved

Baer said all information on the project is shared on the Citizen CATE Facebook group, which is also open to the public. He encourages local residents with an interest in science and astronomy to attend the presentation, as well as one of the SIU physics department’s monthly observations at Neckers Building.

“Because the astronomy talks usually attract a broad audience I will be aiming the content of the talk to general public with such interests,” he said.