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2001-23 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 13, 2001

NCAR Scientist Will Recount His "Unplanned Journey" to Discover New Planets

A Free Public Talk, Monday, August 20, 7:00 p.m., Boulder Public Library Auditorium

David Hosansky
UCAR Communications
P.O. Box 3000
Boulder, CO 80307-3000
Telephone: (303) 497-8611
Fax: (303) 497-8610
E-mail: hosansky@ucar.edu

BOULDER -- NCAR scientist Timothy Brown was on the first team to find multiple planets circling a star outside our solar system. Then he took a hand-built telescope, set it up in a chicken coop in a field in Weld County, and made the first observations of an extrasolar planet crossing in front of its star. His next step was to use the Hubble Space Telescope to confirm the chicken-coop findings. Now, Brown plans to use space-based telescopes to learn about the atmosphere on new-found planets.

"We have observations going on that we think will tell us something exciting in the next year or two. We'll be able to talk about what the atmospheres are made of, what the temperatures are, and whether clouds are important," he says.

Why did this solar physicist at a center studying the Earth's atmosphere become a planet finder? Brown will explain how his search began and where it's taken him in a free public talk, "Probing Planets of Distant Stars: An Unplanned Journey," on Monday, August 20, at 7:00 p.m., in the Boulder Public Library auditorium at 9th Street and Canyon Boulevard. Brown is a senior scientist in the High Altitude Observatory (HAO) of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR).

In April 1999, Brown and his colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and San Francisco State University discovered that the single planet found orbiting Upsilon Andromedae in 1996 was not alone. The three planets they detected are the first known multiple-planet system beyond our Sun.

Brown and HAO graduate fellow David Charbonneau used a different technique in 2000 to observe the first recorded transit of an extrasolar planet across its parent star (known as HD209458). They realized that such a crossing would dim the light from the star by about 1%. To capture this subtle change, Brown ground the lenses himself for the small telescope, which moved from the chicken coop to the parking lot of NCAR's Foothills Laboratory. It's now hunting for planets at one of the world's premier sites for ground-based astronomical observations, on Tenerife in the Canary Islands.

Brown's planet-finding work started, he says, as "largely an accident. It's something I backed into because, for completely different reasons, I had developed the technical tools to do it." In 1992, Brown and colleagues mounted a spectrograph they'd designed and built on a 60-inch telescope at the Whipple Observatory, operated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) on Mt. Hopkins, in Arizona. They'd created it to study subtle oscillations in the light coming from the Sun and other stars. Brown soon realized the spectrograph could be used for planet-hunting as well, and he began his search.

When a Swiss team announced in the fall of 1995 that they'd found a large planet orbiting 51 Pegasi, some 50 light years from Earth, Brown and his colleagues became one of the first teams to confirm the ground-breaking find. Two years later, the NCAR-SAO team spotted another large planet -- the ninth found to that date -- by observing its star, Rho Coronae Borealis, with the spectrographic instrument.

Brown's talk is the 2001 Walter Orr Roberts Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by NCAR's parent organization, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, to honor Brown for his scientific achievement. NCAR founder Walt Roberts was also the first director of HAO and founding president of UCAR.

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-The End-

Note to Editors: To arrange a pre-talk interview with Brown, contact David Hosansky (303-497-8611; hosansky@ucar.edu).

On the Web:
  • NCAR Scientist's Observations Aid in Discovery of Multiple Planets Orbiting a Sun-Like Star
  • NCAR Scientists Help Find New Planet
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    UCAR news in brief

    The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is a not-for-profit university membership consortium which carries out programs to benefit the atmospheric, oceanic, and related sciences. Among other activites, UCAR operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research with National Science Foundation sponsorship.

    UCAR > Communications > News Releases > 2001 Search

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