03/14/2002 08:00:00

Caltech Astronomer to Discuss the Search for Planets Outside Our Solar System

PASADENA, Calif.- Are there Earth-like planets "out there?" The question of whether or not the stars of the night sky are encircled by families of planets similar to our own has intrigued astronomers and the general public alike for centuries. No one knows if there are other planets that resemble the Earth's characteristics, but ongoing searches now deliver newly discovered planets by the dozen, and many of these are far more strange than anyone had imagined. On Wednesday, April 3, 2002, Dr. David Charbonneau, a Millikan Postdoctoral Scholar in Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, will discuss the direct evidence for planets outside our solar system, evidence that has only come about in the last decade. His talk is part of the ongoing Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series that takes place on the Caltech campus.

Charbonneau, a recent import to the Caltech astronomy staff from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one of the world's leading authorities on the search for "transiting planets," or planets that should be detectable as they pass into the line of sight between their host star and Earth. Indeed, Charbonneau was the first to detect the passage of a planet across its parent star.

Last November, Charbonneau and his colleagues made international news when they discovered the first planetary atmosphere outside our own solar system, work done using the Hubble Space Telescope. That work continues using data from the Hubble and from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii. He is also leading a team at Caltech and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build a new telescope at the Palomar Observatory in Southern California. This instrument will operate as part of a network that searches thousands of Sun-like stars to detect orbiting planets.

In his talk, Charbonneau will introduce our neighboring planetary systems and describe how the direct detection of those elusive, small, Earth-like worlds may be much closer than you might think.

Caltech has offered the Watson Lecture Series for almost 80 years, since it was conceived by the late Caltech physicist Earnest Watson as a way to explain science to the local community. Seating is available on a free, no-ticket-required, first-come, first-served basis. The lecture will begin at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, 332 South Michigan Avenue, on Caltech's campus in Pasadena.

For more information, call 1(888)2CALTECH (1-888-222-5832) or (626) 395-4652.

Media Contact: Mark Wheeler (626) 395-8733 wheel@caltech.edu

Visit the Caltech Media Relations Web site at: http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Marcus Woo