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The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know

The Search for Exoplanets: What Astronomers Know
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24 episodes in this series

Episode 1 Why Study Exoplanets?
Learn about the exciting mission of exoplanetary science--the study of planets orbiting stars beyond the Sun. Review the eight planets in our solar system, which provide a baseline for understanding…
Episode 2 How to Find an Exoplanet
Given the extreme faintness of a planet relative to the star it orbits, how can astronomers possibly find it? Learn about direct and indirect methods of detection. As an example…
Episode 3 Doppler and Transit Planet-Finding Methods
Explore two other indirect approaches for finding exoplanets: first, by measuring the Doppler shift in the color of a star due to the pull of an unseen orbiting planet; and…
Episode 4 Pioneers of Planet Searching
Chart the history of exoplanet hunting--from a famous false signal in the 1960s, through ambiguous discoveries in the 1980s, to the big breakthrough in the 1990s, when dozens of exoplanets…
Episode 5 The Misplaced Giant Planets
Investigate 51 Pegasi b, the first planet detected around a Sun-like star, which shocked astronomers by being roughly the size of Jupiter but in an orbit much closer to its…
Episode 6 Explaining the Misplaced Giant Planets
The standard theory of planet formation is based on our solar system. But does this view require revision based on the existence of misplaced giant planets--hot Jupiters circling close to…
Episode 7 The Transits of Exoplanets
A tiny percentage of exoplanets can be detected transiting--or passing in front of--their host stars. Combined with Doppler shifts, transits provide information about a planet's size, mass, density, and likely…
Episode 8 Sniffing Planetary Atmospheres
Survey the history of spectroscopy to understand how a telescope and a diffraction grating can disclose the composition of a star and its planet. Then learn how transits and occultations…
Episode 9 Stellar Rotation and Planetary Revolution
Trace Professor Winn's own search for the subtle signs that tell whether a star has a tilted axis. Discover why this is an important clue in the mystery of misplaced…
Episode 10 Super-Earths or Mini-Neptunes?
Learn how a sensitive new instrument led the way in finding planets smaller than the Jupiter-sized giants that dominated the earliest exoplanetary discoveries. Halfway in size between Earth and Neptune,…
Episode 11 Transiting Planets and the Kepler Mission
The planet search took a giant leap forward in 2009 with the launch of the Kepler spacecraft, which used the transit technique to observe nearly 200,000 stars over a four-year…
Episode 12 Compact Multiplanet Systems
Dig deeper into the treasure trove of data from the Kepler mission, which discovered hundreds of compact multiplanet systems, with planets much more closely packed than in our solar system.…
Episode 13 Planets Circling Two Stars
See how data from the Kepler spacecraft confirms a scenario straight out of the movie Star Wars: a planet with two suns. Investigate the tricky orbital mechanics of these systems.…
Episode 14 Lava Worlds
Explore the theoretical limit of the smallest possible orbit for a planet, taking into consideration tidal stresses and other destructive processes. Then focus on Professor Winn's search for such objects,…
Episode 15 Earthlike Planets
Begin your search for planets that may harbor life by studying the conditions that make Earth habitable, including its distance from the Sun, surface temperature, atmosphere, and oceans. Then examine…
Episode 16 Living with a Dwarf Star
The most common stars are class M dwarf stars, which are smaller and less luminous than the Sun (class G). Earth-sized planets are much easier to detect around M-dwarf stars,…
Episode 17 Living with a Giant Star
In billions of years, the Sun will expand into a red giant, possibly engulfing Earth. Learn how planet-finding techniques give astronomers insight into the processes inside giant stars. Then study…
Episode 18 Our Nearest Exoplanetary Neighbors
Pinpoint the location of the nearest exoplanetary systems to Earth. First, get the big picture on the layout of our Milky Way galaxy, its size, and the Sun's position. Also…
Episode 19 Finding Planets with Gravitational Lensing
Get a lesson in Einstein's general theory of relativity to understand an effect called gravitational microlensing, which allows astronomers to deduce a planet's existence without recording any light from the…
Episode 20 Finding Planets with Direct Imaging
Turn to the most obvious way to find exoplanets: direct imaging. Explore the optics of telescopes to learn why spotting an exoplanet next to its parent star is so difficult.…
Episode 21 Near-Term Future Planet-Finding Projects
The success of exoplanetary science has spurred a wave of new projects to increase our knowledge of worlds beyond our solar system. Survey ground- and space-based programs that are now…
Episode 22 Long-Term Future Planet-Finding Projects
Peer into the future at ambitious projects that may one day succeed in collecting light directly from an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone of a nearby star. Examine three…
Episode 23 The Search for Life on Exoplanets
Join the quest for life on exoplanets, focusing on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI)--a hunt for signals from alien civilizations inspired by a landmark paper in 1959. See how…
Episode 24 Coming Soon: Biosignatures, Moons, and More!
Explore the distinctive biosignatures that show the presence of life of any kind on an exoplanet. Then close with Professor Winn's tip sheet on exoplanetary discoveries likely in the near…

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Chart the history of exoplanet hunting--from a famous false signal in the 1960s, through ambiguous discoveries in the 1980s, to the big breakthrough in the 1990s, when dozens of exoplanets turned up. Astronomers were stunned to find planets unlike anything in the solar system.
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Why Study Exoplanets?
Learn about the exciting mission of exoplanetary science--the study of planets orbiting stars beyond the Sun. Review the eight planets in our solar system, which provide a baseline for understanding the more than 1,000 worlds recently discovered in our region of the Milky Way galaxy.
How to Find an Exoplanet
Given the extreme faintness of a planet relative to the star it orbits, how can astronomers possibly find it? Learn about direct and indirect methods of detection. As an example of the indirect method, discover why a planet causes a star's position to change, providing a strategy for locating exoplanets…
Doppler and Transit Planet-Finding Methods
Explore two other indirect approaches for finding exoplanets: first, by measuring the Doppler shift in the color of a star due to the pull of an unseen orbiting planet; and second, by measuring the tiny drop in the brightness of a star as a planet transits in front of it.
The Misplaced Giant Planets
Investigate 51 Pegasi b, the first planet detected around a Sun-like star, which shocked astronomers by being roughly the size of Jupiter but in an orbit much closer to its star than Mercury is to the Sun. Probe the strange characteristics of these "hot Jupiters," which have turned up around…
Explaining the Misplaced Giant Planets
The standard theory of planet formation is based on our solar system. But does this view require revision based on the existence of misplaced giant planets--hot Jupiters circling close to their parent stars? Compare competing theories that try to resolve this conflict.
The Transits of Exoplanets
A tiny percentage of exoplanets can be detected transiting--or passing in front of--their host stars. Combined with Doppler shifts, transits provide information about a planet's size, mass, density, and likely composition. Learn how ambitious amateur astronomers can use this detection technique in their own backyards.
Sniffing Planetary Atmospheres
Survey the history of spectroscopy to understand how a telescope and a diffraction grating can disclose the composition of a star and its planet. Then learn how transits and occultations are ideal for analyzing planetary atmospheres, paving the way for the search for signatures of life.
Stellar Rotation and Planetary Revolution
Trace Professor Winn's own search for the subtle signs that tell whether a star has a tilted axis. Discover why this is an important clue in the mystery of misplaced giant planets. Also hear how he chanced into the field of exoplanetary science.
Super-Earths or Mini-Neptunes?
Learn how a sensitive new instrument led the way in finding planets smaller than the Jupiter-sized giants that dominated the earliest exoplanetary discoveries. Halfway in size between Earth and Neptune, these worlds have uncertain properties. For clues about their nature, consider how our solar system formed.