Hanging Out with an Exoplanet

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Ever want to peek over the shoulder of a telescope operator taking scientific observations? Or share a gorgeous telescope view of the night sky? Though we’re losing our dark skies in many places around the globe, technology is making it easier to share the best astronomical views from the darkest sky sites. And you don’t even have to leave your computer.

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I’ll be honest, I don’t even own a television. The internet is quite enough entertainment with its various video streaming services. You can find a lot of interesting live science content on Google Plus through their Hangouts on Air technology. The Virtual Star Party made a big splash in the community and was even featured at Google’s developer conference back in June.

Earlier this month, one of our Star Party astronomers took the concept a bit further. Peter Lake used iTelescope in New Mexico to observe an exoplanet transit for a live audience. Co-hosted by Scott Lewis, the live event had just around 300 viewers.

Commenter Craig Willford summed up the experience pretty well:

This is AMAZING! I’m so glad to be alive at a time when I can experience something like this with you all. We’re watching a guy control a telescope on the other side of the planet to show us a planet move in front of a star that is 500 light years away. I may not have my jet pack yet but this is the future that I was promised as a young child!

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The exoplanet in question is Qatar-1B. This is a “hot Jupiter” type planet that passes in front of its host star from our point of view on Earth. The observations are made by taking precise measurements of the star’s brightness which will dip ever so slightly when the planet passes in front.

Peter was kind enough to share some of the data with us so you can get a peek at this light curve in the image at top. The horizontal axis represents time and the vertical is brightness. Each dot represents one data point in time. The curves through the dots are the model of the system as fit to the data, and the bottom curve is after some corrections were applied. Peter also captured a meteor using the observatory’s all-sky camera while they were at it!

You can watch the whole archived broadcast on YouTube, or skip around to see what it is all about.

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If you are a fan of space and science, there are many shows, interviews, and live podcast recordings happening all the time on Google+ and YouTube, so spend some time browsing through the Events tab to find something you like. Most show hosts will interact with the audience via comments as well. You never know what you can learn without even leaving your desk.

The Internet. Not just for cat videos anymore. (But we like those, too!)

Images courtesy of Peter Lake. Please do not redistribute without permission.