April 2, 2020

27.04.11: Detecting “Exo-Aurorae.”

Planetary Scientists may soon have a new technique in their arsenal in the hunt for exo-solar planets. Current tried-and-true methods involve measuring tiny radial velocity shifts, catching a gravitational lensing event, or watching and measuring a tiny dip in brightness as a planet transits its host star.

All the above methods have their limitations; the short periods of observation involved and the unlikely happenstance of a transit lying along our field of view have assured that a good majority of worlds discovered have been “Hot Jupiters,” large worlds locked in short orbits. Such current methods would still prove to be largely ineffective in detecting the presence Jupiter or Saturn in our own solar system from even a few light years away.

The largest worlds in our neighborhood do, however, emit something that we may soon be able to detect at galactic distances; low frequency radio waves. These are emitted by aurorae, caused in the case of Jupiter by interactions with material spewed from the volcanic Moon Io, and in the case of Saturn, similar interaction with its moon ice geyser moon, Enceladus. Last week, researcher Dr Jonathan Nichols of the University of Leicester noted at the RAS 2011 National Astronomy Meeting that systems such as the LOw Frequency ARray (LOFAR) will give us the capability to detect auroral outbursts similar to what we observe on Saturn and Jupiter out to a distance of about 150 light years. That sphere is inclusive of hundreds of stars and potential star systems. With sites scattered across Europe, LOFAR is scheduled to be fully completed later this year. Will we have data on the first exoplanet discovered via detection of aurora soon? Whatever the case, the field of exo-planetology has definitely come into its own!


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