Café Scientifique: Earth 2.0: Habitable Exoplanets?

Café Scientifique: Earth 2.0: Habitable Exoplanets?

The topic: Exoplanets.  

The presenter: Professor Charles ‘Chick’ Woodward of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Astrophysics; Board Member and Vice-Chair, Large Binocular Telescope Corporation; National Science Foundation-White House Presidential Faculty Fellow; National Science Foundation-Young Investigator Award; Smithsonian Institution Faculty Fellow-Air and Space Museum; Ford Foundation Minority Fellow.  

With a resumé like Professor Woodward’s, one might be inclined to think his presentation is intimidatingly beyond their scope.  However, cafés have the unique ability to entertain and educate in an inviting atmosphere with beer, food, and an audience full of civilians remarkably like ourselves.

Sweet sweet Café swag.

The informal tone is set by kicking off the evening with a playful bit of trivia and prizes: “What do you call a gas giant orbiting a star closer than the earth orbits our sun?”  I raise my hand in a perfect imitation of Hermione.  “A hot jupiter!”  My correct answer is rewarded with a specimen from the curator’s drawer and a print out of old-school light readings from a distant star.  Swoon.  Café Scientifique gets me.

Once the audience has their drink of choice, a tasty plate of food, and a smile due to trivia antics, the lights dim and the presentation begins.

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“There are infinite worlds both like and unlike this world of ours. For the atoms being infinite in number... are borne on far out into space.”  Leading with this quote from Epicurus, Professor Charles “Chick” Woodward asks in accordance with the Fermi Paradox, where is everybody and why haven’t they contacted us?  Could we be alone?  If so, is there obvious proof we are alone in the galaxy?

Professor Woodward goes on to describe the great potential for other earth-like planets, yet until very recently, we had little evidence of anything resembling our pale blue dot.  However, the search for exoplanets received a boost in 2014 when the Kepler space telescope embarked on the Nasa Discovery Mission #10 to scour our region of the Milky Way galaxy for hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets near the habitable zone.  Prior to 2014, only a few exoplanets were confirmed.  With the help of the Kepler space telescope and the transit method for detection, in 2014 alone, over 800 exoplanets were discovered.

Along with the success of the Nasa Discovery Mission #10 and the Kepler Space Telescope, additional missions for detecting exoplanets utilizing alternate methods are already in progress.  As the Program Director and Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for the Large Bionocular Telescope Observatory (LBTO), Professor Woodward expertly describes the functions and advances this telescope provides in the search for exoplanets. Despite its limitations as an earth-bound telescope, the LBTO utilizes adaptive optics to correct atmospheric distortions of light from distant stars thereby creating a clear image of the star and any orbiting exoplanets.

Professor Woodward’s presentation revealed the exciting advances developing with the search for exoplanets.  New discoveries are made nearly every day inching us closer to finding Earth-like planets in our galaxy and with that, the possibility for life.

To learn more about current methods for detecting exoplanets and the use of the Large Binocular Telescope’s adaptive optics, click here for the podcast recorded by The Bell Museum of Natural History.  Podcasts of Cafés are usually uploaded a few days to a week following the presentation.

Want to help in the search for intelligent life?  Join the SETI citizen science Zooinverse project. More information about citizen science projects on April 30th in the Bell Museum Auditorium.  

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