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Exotic Earths: Exploring Planets Around Other Stars

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Are we alone in the Universe?

Planets Everywhere. This artist’s illustration gives an impression of how common planets are around the stars in the Milky Way. Image from Planet Quest, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory . Credit ESO/M. Kornmesser

That’s what we often wonder as we look up at the stars of the night sky. We may become particularly fascinated with this question after reading a great science fiction novel or watching a film that centers on the exploration of other planetary systems (e.g. The Star Trek franchise).

The idea that there might be habitable planets outside our solar system is no longer restricted to the science fiction genre, it’s a research field that has grown dramatically since the first planet orbiting a star like our Sun was discovered and each month the orbiting Kepler telescope alone sights hundreds of potential exoplanets.

 On Wednesday, June 19 at 11:30 a.m. in the Library of Congress Pickford Theater, astrobiologist Dr. Avi Mandell will present a lecture on “Exotic Earths: Exploring Planets Around Other Stars.“ 

Planets that orbit stars other than the Sun are known as exoplanets or extrasolar planets. During the past 20 years, nearly one thousand planets have been discovered orbiting nearby stars. Research on the formation of planetary systems and characterization of extrasolar planets come from an observational and theoretical perspective. According to Dr. Mandell, in this golden age of precision measurements of the size and orbital motion of giant planets around other stars, every new discovery has the potential to upend our understanding of the types of planets that we may find.

A research scientist with the Planetary Systems Laboratory at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Dr.Mandell  first became interested in investigations of extrasolar planets through his graduate work in the field of astrobiology, which is the study of the origin and distribution of life in the universe.  The idea of distant planets with the potential to host a completely independent and exotic origin for life has fascinated him since, and his research interests have expanded to also encompass the formation and evolution of planetary systems.  He has developed both modeling and observational techniques to study protoplanetary disks and planets at infrared wavelengths, and he has also published a number of articles in popular astronomy magazines.

During this illustrated lecture, Dr. Mandell will  describe the exciting journey from the discovery of the first planet orbiting a sun-like star up though current efforts to tease out the atmospheric structure and composition of the exotic menageries of planets discovered to date. Dr. Mandell will also discuss the ongoing discoveries of the Hubble Telescope as well as next generation space based telescopes, such as the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, and ground based telescopes almost half as large as a football field. These extremely sensitive observatories will allow detection and remote exploration of planets as small as Earth, and will perhaps eventually enable humankind to delve deeper into one of the most fundamental questions for our existence: are we alone in the universe?

If you cannot attend this lecture in person, we will be capturing it for later broadcast on the Library’s science and technology webcast page and YouTube channel  Topics in Science playlist. [Update 10/2015: You can view a recording of this program on the Library’s webcast page or YouTube channel ]

More information about the event can be found in the NASA Spring Lecture Series press release.


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