NASA Goddard astrophysicist Daniel Angerhausen discusses how astronomers may be able to maximize transit photometry to find planets like those in our solar system around other stars -- and possibly moons, rings, and asteroid groups as well.
Astronomers have used many different methods to discover planets beyond the solar system, but the most successful by far is transit photometry, which measures changes in a star's brightness caused by a mini-eclipse. When a planet crosses in front of its star along our line of sight, it blocks some of the star's light. If the dimming lasts for a set amount of time and occurs at regular intervals, it likely means an exoplanet is passing in front of, or transiting, the star once every orbital period.
NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has used this technique to become the most successful planet-hunting spacecraft to date, with more than a thousand established discoveries and many more awaiting confirmation. Missions carrying improved technology are now planned, but how much more can they tell us about alien planetary systems similar to our own?
A great deal, according to recently published studies by Michael Hippke at the Institute for Data Analysis in Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, and Daniel Angerhausen, a postdoctoral researcher at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. They show that in the best-case scenarios upcoming missions could uncover planetary moons, ringed worlds similar to Saturn, and even large collections of asteroids.