September 29, 2008

Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds

Penn State University has recently opened up a Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds. Directed by Alex Wolszczan, Evan Pugh professor of astronomy and astrophysics, the center is devoted to broad, interdisciplinary research in the field of extrasolar planets, to promoting collaborations among scientists, and to improving science education at Penn State and among the general public.
Wolszczan discovered the first planets ever found outside our solar system in 1992, catapulting the field of extrasolar-planet studies into the forefront of astrophysics. Wolszczan had observed tiny fluctuations in the arrival times of the regular signals from a pulsar -- a telltale sign of the presence of orbiting planets around the rapidly spinning neutron star.
Three years later, the first extra-solar planet around a normal solar-like star, named "51 Pegasi b," was identified by Mayor and Didier Queloz. As of today, scientists have discovered more than 300 planets accompanying various types of stars.
The principal objective of research in the field of Exoplanetology is to find planets where living organisms exist, and to determine their rate of occurrence in the universe.
The research on exoplanets and the search for life is intertwined. Opening up a center focused on this field is welcome news for all enthusiasts of the burgeoning field of Exoplanetology.