Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, has received the Cottrell College Science Award to “exoplanets” — planets that exist outside this solar system. Kempton’s research has focused on modeling and characterizing the atmospheres of low-mass exoplanets known as super-Earths since she was a theorist in the initial pioneering observational studies of super-Earth atmospheres.
Kempton’s project, “Exoplanet Science with Grinnell's Grant O. Gale Observatory,” focuses on planets in distant solar systems.
“Under the dark Iowa skies we are able to view a large number of planetary systems,” says Kempton, principal investigator for the two-year project. Using the observatory’s 24-inch reflecting telescope, Kempton and her students will collect data that may lead to confirmation of planetary candidates or even discovery of additional exoplanets.
“We detect these planets using the transit method,” Kempton adds. “A transit occurs when an orbiting planet passes in front if its host star, causing a periodic dimming of light from the star. The regular dimming of the host star allows us to infer the presence of a planet.”
Kempton’s $40,000 award, plus additional funds from the Office of the Dean, will help Kempton and her students conduct research over the course of the next two summers.
Kempton and four students working with her already have obtained initial high-quality transit light curves and compiled a data reduction pipeline for transit data obtained with the Gale Observatory telescope. Plus they have started using a new Apogee camera, as well as a filter wheel and a smaller auto-guiding camera. This equipment improves the precision of future transit data obtained with the telescope.
Additional upgrades to the telescope hardware made possible by the award will enable Kempton and her students to expand detection thresholds to smaller planets orbiting fainter stars. This research ultimately will contribute to the overall understanding of what types of planets exist around stars in our galaxy, how they form and evolve, and how typical systems like our solar system might be — getting to the age-old question of “Are we alone?”
The award will fund student workstations for performing data analysis, supplies for the observatory, stipends for summer students and Kempton, who also will receive a research computer. In addition, funds for travel will be used to attend conferences and advance collaborative work.
Kempton has co-authored more than 30 articles related to exoplanets in journals such as Nature and the Astrophysical Journal.
About the Cottrell College Science Awards
The Cottrell College Science Awards, from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, are carefully reviewed by a selection panel of top scientists and have supported the research work of more than 1,500 early career scientists at 400 institutions over the last 16 years.
Research Corporation for Science Advancement was founded in 1912 and is the second-oldest foundation in the United States (after the Carnegie Corporation) and the oldest foundation for science advancement. Research Corporation is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America’s colleges and universities.