September 24, 2010

A Tale for the Transit Method

I’ve always been fascinated when planet-hunters describe the difficulty they face regarding the detection of exoplanets. They often refer to the analogy of trying to find a firefly against the backdrop of a huge bright searchlight. As if that's not hard enough, so I had a crazy “what if” moment, as i imagined other factors that could screw up their data. What if a fly actually walked across the field of view (FOV) of a CCD/telescope? Would it mimic the transit of an exoplanet across the face of a star when doing photometry?

I went on to find out by asking several astronomers about it. The ones i caught were displaying their awesome telescopes at Battery Park during the World Science Festival in New York. [Incidentally, that was also the same night when the James Webb Space Telescope was being showcased--a full-size replica was on display].

So when I asked real astronomers what the effect would be, if a fly (or any insect, for that matter) walked across the mirror of a telescope with a CCD during a photometry session--they all agreed that the fly would actually cause a dip in the captured brightness of the star!

Honestly, I don’t think so. And I am not yet convinced that the “fly effect” would occur when a housefly transits a star by way of strolling across the surface of the telescope mirror. I have no CCD at hand (and no volunteer fly as well), so I have no way to find out for sure. But my gendanken experiment ended up as a short story entitled The Fly and the Planet-hunter.

So, I dedicate that story to all the astronomers in the world (grumpy or not), and to all the flies, bugs and mosquitos who make astronomers’ lives astronomically difficult. No, its not that astronomers are grumpy, nor that planet-hunters are mean old men. Astronomers are actually very nice people, and eager to share their passion for astronomy. Sidewalk astronomers would even let you peer through their telescopes--but just don't touch the eyepiece because that will freak them out.

But the real work of astronomers are really tedious and requires a lot of maddening patience. Reflecting upon that, I had the urge to cheer up these dedicated folks, specially the amateur planet-hunters who go through challenging and dangerous situations (bear, anyone?) just to find exoplanets.

So I hope you'll enjoy the story. Perhaps it's a tale you can tell your grandkids as you show them the stars and how to find exoplanets, oh ye grumpy ol' man! :)

Short Story: The Fly and the Planet-hunter