It’s Christmas Eve and I’m starting a five-night observing run at the Keck Telescope using a high-resolution spectrograph (HIRES) to search for exoplanets. In the photo here, I am communicating with the telescope operator, Terry, by polycom. He is on the summit of Mauna Kea at 14,000 ft where the air is thin and I see that he has oxygen flowing. I’m glad that I’m working in comfort at Keck HQ in Waimea.
Tonight, I’m using the Doppler technique to measure the velocities of stars. Orbiting planets tug their host stars around a common center of mass. This reflex stellar velocity is largest for massive planets.
When small stars eclipse larger stars, the brightness dip can be virtually the same as those for transiting gas giant planets. To confirm a transit candidate as a planet, Doppler measurements are needed to determine the mass of the transiting object. The Kepler team has a massive follow-up campaign (led by Dr. Geoff Marcy at UC Berkeley) using the same setup that I’m using now. Dr. Natalie Batalha (Deputy Scientist for the Kepler project) explains that the team is also eager to have others helping and to have Planet Hunters combing through the data. Watch for a blog post by Dr. Batalha here soon!
Some of you have asked how many consecutive low points you should see during a transit. That depends on how close the planet is to the star. Close planets orbit faster and transit in a few hours while more distant planets take several hours to transit. You should look for more than one low point. Since the brightness measurements are taken every 30 minutes, a 3 hour transit would consist of just 6 low points. However the ingress, or first transit point, might be transitional and not reach the transit floor. Ditto for the egress, or last transit point).
The light curves for eclipsing binary stars are quite spectacular – they remind me of sketches I used to make with a “spirograph” toy I had as a kid. Some of the planet hunters have called this a shutter effect and I’ve written a quick program to demonstrate what is happening. In the Figure below, I created a theoretical light curve for a contact eclipsing binary with an orbital period of just 6 hours. If we had observations of this star every few minutes, then the light curve would look similar to a sine wave (left plot). However, if we observe this star less frequently (a slow “shutter speed”), then some interesting patterns emerge. The plot on the right in the Figure below shows an under-sampling of the light curve over 30 days. The pattern is similar to what appears in some of the eclipsing binary curves you are finding in the Kepler data.