Buy a commercial telescope today, equip it with a CCD detector, and you’re arming yourself to enter the exoplanet hunt. A CCD, or charge-coupled device, is a sensor that proves far more efficient than photographic film at capturing incoming light. It wasn’t so long ago that such tools were available only at large observatories, but no more. Today’s amateur can observe a planetary transit, sensing the slight dimming that the planet causes to the starlight as seen from Earth.
The trick is knowing when and where to look, and on that score, the Transitsearch network, often working with the American Association of Variable Star Observers, offers ephemeris and transit search results for stars thought to be candidates for such detections. For those new to the term, an ephermeris (pl. ephemerides) is a table plotting the position of celestial bodies. Look to Transitsearch for an example.
Greg Laughlin (UC Santa Cruz) noted this morning on the systemic site that he was overhauling the look and capabilities of Transitsearch. The new design isn’t fully functional yet, but the data are already flowing. Says Laughlin:
“The ephemerides are incrementally updated every ten minutes, and so the transit window column now has a much finer resolution. It gives a quick overview of which planets are transiting (or potentially transiting) right now.”
And is something more in the works? Laughlin notes that large radial velocity studies are usually accompanied by photometric observations made by the same team, thus keeping transit detections more or less in-house. “Ideally, we need to get an open-source dedicated radial velocity observatory up and running to really feed Transitsearch and the systemic backend, and we are looking at avenues to make this happen.” That’s an exciting concept indeed, and one we’ll follow with great interest as the number of detected exoplanets closes on 300.