Stargazer

Published: Apr 9, 2014
Simon Schuler, assistant professor of physics, holds a grant from NASA to study the chemical compositions of stars hosting planets discovered by Kepler.
Simon Schuler, assistant professor of physics, holds a grant from NASA to study the chemical compositions of stars hosting planets discovered by Kepler.
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The following is an excerpt. Read the full version in the Spring 2014 Journal.

Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if we are alone in the universe?

Simon Schuler, assistant professor of physics, doesn’t think we are the only ones in this world. He said the first step in answering this universal question is to find planets like Earth that are in the “habitable zone” of a star, where the temperature is not too hot or too cold and liquid water can exist. One of Schuler’s current research projects may help scientists find these planets more quickly. “We have to start with what we know,” said Schuler.

NASA’s most recent effort to identify planets outside our solar system, or exoplanets, is the Kepler Mission, which launched a specially designed space telescope to find habitable planets in other parts of our galaxy. Kepler finds planets by looking for tiny dips in the brightness of a star when a planet crosses in front of it, called the transit method. To date, Kepler has identified more than 3,500 possible planets outside our solar system (from 2009–2013).

Schuler explained that the Kepler instrument only looks in one direction.

“So just in this one small part of our galaxy, there are thousands of planets,” said Schuler, implying that there are likely millions more in other parts of our galaxy.

Schuler currently holds a grant from NASA to study the chemical compositions of stars hosting planets discovered by Kepler. He is looking for differences in the compositions of stars with planets and those not known to have planets to identify possible signatures of the planet formation process.

The purpose of this is to discover if there is a particular composition, a chemical signature, that determines the kind of planets that form. If this chemical signature exists, when you look out at the universe and find a star with that chemical signature, it should have Earth-sized planets.

That is a big “if,” but if scientists can identify such a signature, it could save time and millions of dollars.

“Kepler was a $600 million piece of equipment we sent out to find these types of planets,” said Schuler. “If we have a signature that we can look for, at the very least it can help give us some direction of which way to point the next one.”

Schuler has been at UT a little less than two years. He has spent these first two years helping Ethan Denault, associate chair and associate professor of physics, to design courses in the University’s fledging physics program and teaches general physics, a physics lab and an introduction to astronomy course. There is currently only a physics minor at UT, which began in 2012, although the University has recently approved a physics major beginning in Fall 2014.

Schuler said the idea of helping to lay the ground work for a new physics program was one of the things that attracted him to UT. He is currently testing out an upper level astrophysics course, which will become a regular course in Fall 2014.

He of course enjoys working with students and has two UT undergraduates working on research projects with him. Zack Vaz ’14, a biology major and physics minor from Wesley Chapel, FL, is working with Schuler on his Kepler research.

Vaz is studying spectra from three stars that host planets discovered by Kepler and records the absorption lines into computer programs. Then Schuler helps him to interpret the data.

“I may be sitting in a lab staring at a computer screen, but I tell myself I’m looking at atoms from a star,” said Vaz. “This light had to travel thousands of light years to be picked up by equipment here on Earth so that is pretty amazing.”

Vaz attended the American Astronomical Society conference with Schuler in January and presented a poster “Metallicity Analysis of Planetary Hosts Kepler-11, 37 and 68.” Vaz, who hopes to attend graduate school to study biomechanics, said the experience has been invaluable.

“Being exposed in the lab and working toward publishing a paper, these are things I need to get into graduate school,” he said.

Schuler has also been working with Alanna D’Amelio ’14, a biology major and psychology minor from Tampa. She has been working with Schuler on his continuing research into open cluster stars.

“When I was little I wanted to be an astronomer,” explained D’Amelio, who plans to attend medical school after graduation. D’Amelio is also measuring absorption lines and said working on the project has built her confidence and patience.

“It is mutually beneficial. They get great experience gathering and measuring data, skills necessary to be successful in graduate school and as a working scientist,” said Schuler. “I’m getting out results, which I can then turn into a paper and give them a co-author credit of course.”

Read the full version of this story, by writer Kiley Mallard, in the Spring 2014 Journal.