It’s an astronomy record that may keep astronomy a science fact forever…and that you can watch it being set up.
The world is still waiting for the confirmation of exoplanets, or planets beyond our solar system. But there’s a good chance we could see an exoplanet for the first time in space—and we may have the technology to find one.
On Monday, Aug. 5, a team of scientists will watch as a telescope puts together a video that captures a real-time event. That may seem like an odd thing to do, but it’s actually how astronomers have determined the positions of planets in the past.
“Typically, we have telescopes up that take the picture of the area of a target field, and they are looking up at the night sky,” Luis Carneiro, lead researcher on the team, told Fox News, explaining how he’s preparing the planet.
But that doesn’t work in a changing environment. As Carneiro and his team revise the coordinates of their monitor, another telescope is cranking out images of an orbiting star system, showing what Carneiro calls a “two-way street.”
A two-way street is a situation where astronomers on one side of the road know exactly what lies ahead and can follow the path of the star to the other side, but the other side is still plotting out its path. That way, the astronomers on the other side don’t know what the star is likely to do, and so they can’t count on any new information that might come their way.
Here on Earth, we have two types of positional charts—or lines showing the direction we’re pointing at something. One of the most common kinds of positional charts on Earth is a set of what astronomers call star or sun lines. Astronomers use these stars and sun lines to trace the movements of gas and dust in the interstellar medium. Their subject is the stuff in interstellar space—blue blood, gas, and dust—which makes up our nearest stellar neighbors, such as our sun and our solar system.
The second type of international coordinates chart is called a “non-random frame direction line.” These will map where a star is likely to be as it passes over a star. A third category, called a “random declination,” charts the location of the star directly in relation to the star above and below it. It’s most common, Carneiro said, for non-repeating shapes like twin satellites.
Another significant feature of space navigation is the fact that solar systems appear to align with their stars. That is, when we orbit the sun, we spin in the same direction, and so we can measure their locations with great accuracy.
“If we can pinpoint a position, we’re going to be able to find something that’s consistent with that position, and this can be the first time that you will have that,” Carneiro said.
For instance, astronomers can see if an object will be stable in the dark, or if it will be unstable, Carneiro said. And as his team puts together the GPS for their first Exoplanet Globe, they can use both types of coordinates to pinpoint the exact location of the exoplanet—not just its coordinates, but their location.
Not only would that help the planet receive more light and heat, he said, but astronomers could use the geo-positioning technology to determine whether an exoplanet is hospitable to life.
“For an exoplanet, anything above the mean distance that a star will give us of its disk, is the exact distance that you would need to generate liquid water,” Carneiro said.