Discovering the Unknown: Researchers Receive Top Telescope Access

Scientists to explore white dwarfs, distant planets with James Webb Space Telescope

Two University of Southern Queensland (UniSQ) researchers will explore the scientific mysteries of outer space after being granted access to the world-renowned James Webb Space Telescope.

Astrophysicist Dr Chelsea Huang and Astrophysics PhD student Alex Venner were selected through the highly contested application process and will use the opportunity to advance their respective research projects.

Launched in 2021 by NASA, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is the most powerful of its kind, boasting an array of scientific instruments and Infrared capabilities. It currently orbits the Sun, tracing a path around 1.5 million kilometres away from the Earth.

Dr Huang will use data from the telescope to study the evolution of a pair of planets in the TOI-1130 system, located around 190 light years away.

“When stars are young, they are often surrounded by a gaseous protoplanetary disk and, planets form within these disks,” Dr Huang said.

“We believe that exoplanets discovered around stars move along these disks to arrive at their current locations.

“My project will compare the atmosphere of two planets in the same system and find clues of how they moved through the disk in the past for the first time.

“I discovered these planets in 2020, it’s very exciting to look at them in detail with the JWST.

“These two planets are different; one is a Jupiter-sized planet on an eight-day orbital, while the other is between the size of Earth and Neptune, on a four-day orbit – it’s rare to see this mix and match.”

Meanwhile, Mr Venner has his sights set on a different system and will use data from the JWST to try and detect a planet orbiting a white dwarf.

Once burning bright like our Sun, white dwarfs are a type of dead star which have exhausted their fuel supplies and ejected their outer atmospheres.

“Despite the tumultuous nature of this transformation, astronomers think that orbiting planets could survive – and for one white dwarf called GD 140, I’m hoping to prove it,” Mr Venner said.

“I’m looking at GD 140 because it already shows evidence that a planet is there.

“The white dwarf has measurements of its motion through space, what we call astrometry, which suggests it is being perturbed by an orbiting companion.

“My collaborators looked at existing measurements of the star’s brightness and found that something is contributing a little bit of extra infrared light to the white dwarf.

“We can’t say for sure if these phenomena are related, but assuming for a moment that they are, a planet a few times more massive than Jupiter would neatly explain all the evidence.”

Dr Huang and Mr Venner submitted their proposals to the General Observer program, where JWST time slots are bid upon by people from across the world. This cycle had a 15 per cent success rate for a standard time slot.

“This round there were only four Australian projects approved, so it is very exciting to be among the successful applicants,” Dr Huang said.

“It feels almost like winning the lottery,” Mr Venner said.

“This is my first successful observing proposal ever, and it being on one of the greatest telescopes in history is amazing.”

Learn more about the University’s Centre for Astrophysics.

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