Since the dawn of time we all have often looked at the night sky and wondered WHAT, if anything, is out there?
In this ongoing 2016-2017 yearlong SAMSI Program on Statistical, Mathematical and Computational Methods for Astronomy (ASTRO), astrophysicists, mathematicians and statisticians are working together among many other things, to explore better ways to find the existence of other planets, in particular the ones which have habitable conditions as our own planet Earth.
This year’s opening workshop for the ASTRO program was held at the NC Biotech Center from August 22-26 which brought together some of the most brilliant minds in the field to discuss among other research topics, the possibility and existence of other worlds or “exoplanets.” The workshop featured a multitude of talks and panel discussions on the various research topics that includes Astrophysical Emulation, Astrophysical Populations (exoplanets), Gravitational Waves, Synoptic Time Domain Surveys and Cosmology.
Over 90 participants from around the nation and also a from other countries (Canada, Spain, UK), specializing in astronomy and astrostatistics were present for the five day workshop that featured speakers from NASA, Caltech, Harvard, Penn State and Yale just to name a few. The year-long program will allow astrophysicists, mathematicians and statisticians to collaborate via virtual media (e.g., weekly webex meetings) and they will be working together for approximately the next nine or so months to analyze huge size data and explore better ways to improve current methodologies based stellar observations produced by spectrographs and other ground-based and space-based astronomical surveys.
Currently, one of the emphases in the astronomy field is to find the existence of exoplanets and/or other worlds that have the potential to support life. As this is a hot topic in the astronomy field, scientists and mathematicians are focusing their efforts on finding these exoplanets right here in our own galaxy. By trying to locate exoplanets, the potential exists for probes to be sent to explore these regions for earth-like planets.
Since 1988, survey based analyses have identified the discovery of more than 3,500 exoplanets. The data provided for these discoveries came from the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searchers (HARPS), beginning in 2004, and later by the Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009.
Eric Fiegelson, a Distinguished Senior Scholar and Professor from Penn State’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, was one of the attendees and was one of the speakers for the opening workshop. Fiegelson was extremely excited about this opportunity to work with other researchers in order to learn how both astrophysicists and astrostatisticians can bring their collective experience and knowledge to the table in order to potentially lead to the discovery of other exoplanets.
Over the past 25 years Fiegelson has been involved in astronomy and teaching, he said, “This event was the first time I have ever seen a room filled with nearly 50% astronomers and 50% statisticians…SAMSI made this possible!” Fiegelson explained why this was significant because until now, the two disciplines in the science of astronomy rarely worked together on a grand level research endeavor like this. Fiegelson is also one of the many visiting fellows at SAMSI for this program whom are charged with supporting the research and collaboration of this program from this consortium of brilliant minds in the field of astronomy and statistics.
It was only fitting that while this workshop was in session, astronomers announced that they may have found a planet 1.3 times more massive than Earth. The exoplanet is known as Proxima B and current analysis suggests that it resides near the star Proxima Centauri, our sun’s nearest neighbor. Proxima B is within the habitable zone to Proxima Centauri, which means that the exoplanet can support liquid water given sufficient atmospheric pressure and therefore has the potential to sustain life. Proxima B is approximately 4.7 million miles away and would take almost 20 years to reach with our current technology of space exploration. Still the existence of Proxima B is our most hopeful prospect yet of finding other life out there in the cosmos.
The news of this exciting discovery was well received by those attending the opening workshop. The existence of the very source of their research further supplanted the need to explore this topic even more. Many of the researchers are excited for the chance to work together and learn each other’s capabilities. Overall, the hope for the ASTRO program is that it provides a wealth of opportunities by promoting the sharing of data and ideas and by allowing scientists to collaborate almost on a daily basis for nine months that could potentially have huge ramifications into the research of five focused research topics.
The ASTRO program, which started in August of this year will be ongoing through May, 2017. To see what other interesting topics and workshops will be discussed in this program, visit: www.samsi.info/astro.