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From the Field: Emily Rice

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Blogging from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, Emily Rice, a research scientist in the Museum’s Department of Astrophysics, is working with a collaborator to model the atmospheres of low-mass stars, brown dwarfs, and giant gas planets, including descriptions of their chemistry and clouds. A major new exhibition about the future of space exploration opens at the Museum this fall.

For this trip, I made an unfamiliar journey to a familiar destination: Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. I have visited Lowell almost 10 times in the past seven years, but until this trip I was traveling to Flagstaff from Los Angeles, where I was studying astronomy at University of California, Los Angeles. For this, my first trip to Lowell since becoming a research scientist at the Museum, I spent 14 hours taking three flights from bustling New York City to tranquil Flagstaff.

exoplanets

This image shows four planets (b through e) around the star HR 8799. The light from the star has been removed to reveal the planets. The spots at the center of the image are residual light from slight imperfections in the subtraction. Dr. Travis Barman of Lowell Observatory is working to understand the atmospheres of these planets. Image: NRC-HIA, C. Marois, and Keck Observatory.


Lowell Observatory is infused with history. The observatory was established in 1894, and the first telescope arrived in 1896. It was here that Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. In fact, I’m staying in the same apartment where he was living at the time.

I won’t be using any telescopes while I am here, however. I’ll be doing theoretical astrophysics, or using computer codes to model astrophysical phenomena, and working with Dr. Travis Barman, a preeminent theoretical astrophysicist who studies the atmospheres of planets around other stars, or exoplanets. His most recent project is to understand the planets in orbit around the star HR 8799, the only directly-imaged multiple exoplanet system.

While I am at Lowell, I will be analyzing data of exoplanet cousins called brown dwarfs. Brown dwarfs are “failed stars,” objects that are not massive enough to create energy by fusing hydrogen in their cores (energy released from that fusion is the reason why stars like the Sun shine.) Exoplanets and brown dwarfs were both discovered in the mid-1990s, and astronomers are finding striking similarities between the two, especially in terms of their atmospheres.

By calculating models of what we expect to see, I’ll also be preparing to take advantage of upcoming instruments that will be able to take more detailed observations of exoplanets than have yet been possible by spreading their light into spectra. It is an exciting time to be studying exoplanets!

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