Don’t limit yourself to Earth-bound Hawaiian timeshares

Do you ever get tired of Earth? Fancy going somewhere else? Here’s the guide on how to find your new favourite vacation spot.

The first step is to find an exoplanet — UBC students have proven it can be done even by undergrads. An exoplanet is a celestial body that orbits around a star other than our sun. We can easily detect planets within our solar system, but exoplanets tend to be so far away that methods used within the solar system no longer apply. How do we find exoplanets?

Direct imaging

In very special cases, we can directly see exoplanets. While visible light provides limited knowledge of the universe, imaging in infrared can reveal things that were previously hidden. For example, an infrared image of HL Tauri (a young star about 456 light-years away) captured by ALMA revealed noticeable dark bands in the disk of gas and dust around the star, which were most likely due to exoplanets.

Unfortunately, we can’t detect most planets in this way.

Radial velocity method

This method involves examining changes in the light spectrum of stars. A star in a planetary system is not stationary — it wobbles slightly due to the gravitational influence of its own planet. Due to the Doppler effect, the light spectrum changes as the star moves towards and away from the observer.

When a planet is present, these changes are periodic and depend on the orbital speed of the planet. This method has a bias towards large planets that orbit close to their star.

Transit method

The transit method uses the intensity of light emitted from a star to find planets. When a planet travels in front of a star, it tends to block a small portion of the light, leading to a tiny dip in the intensity of light from the star. Periodic decreases in the star’s brightness tend to confirm the existence of an exoplanet. Like the previous method, this method has a bias towards large planets that orbit close to their star.

Gravitational microlensing

All of the techniques mentioned above can’t detect exoplanets that are thousands of light-years away. Gravitational microlensing uses an effect explained by Einstein’s general theory of relativity to detect planets. Simply put, if a star (the lens) passes in front of another star (the source) whose light is on its way to Earth, the gravity of the nearer star will bend the light (lensing) of the source.

If the lens happens to contain an exoplanet that also crosses through the light from the source, the exoplanet’s gravity will also slightly bend the light (microlensing). Both the lens and its planet produce a spike in the light curve, so two spikes in the light curve indicates an exoplanet. This method allows us to detect even small planets that are thousands of light-years away.

What now?

You’ve used these methods to find an exoplanet... how do you actually get there? Sadly, I can’t give you the answer because we don’t quite have the technology.

For now, this guide will remain incomplete.

Naveen Sivasankar is a first-year student in the faculty of science and a member of the UBC Astronomy Club.