Every clear night since spring 2015, University of Montana students and professors have been looking to the sky for habitable planets outside of this solar system through a robotic telescope in Arizona.
MINERVA, or miniature exoplanet radial velocity array, is a NASA-funded project that UM has been a part of since December 2014, according to principal investigator Nate McCrady. UM owns one of the project’s four telescopes located at the Whipple Observatory on Mount Hopkins, just outside Tucson, Arizona. Its primary goal is to observe, detect and categorize planets that fall in other stars’ habitable zones.
McCrady said there are 200 billion suns in the universe, each a potential energy source for a planet that could support life. Mainly, the researchers are looking for planets that are in the “Goldilocks zone,” where it is not too hot or cold for liquid water to exist.
The exoplanets that the MINERVA project finds will then serve as targets for future missions that can determine if liquid water is truly present, McCrady said. The James Webb Space Telescope is one such project, set to launch sometime in 2018. This is the same telescope that will potentially study the seven habitable planets orbiting Trappist-1, discovered by NASA and Belgian astronomers on Feb. 22, 2017, according to the New York Times.
According to McCrady, UM recently found Celt-11b, a minor planet that orbits a white dwarf star. Earth’s sun is expected to end its life as a white dwarf star, McCrady said, but Celt-11b is so much smaller than Earth that the star’s gravitational force is shredding the planet over time.
MINERVA is a high cadence mission, meaning that the same planet or star will be observed repeatedly, even after the James Webb Space Telescope launches, McCrady said. He expects the project to find 10 planets larger than Earth in the next three years.
McCrady said he works with six undergraduate physics and astronomy students. Physics and astronomy are terminal bachelor’s degrees at UM, which means the students are doing work that is reserved for graduate students at other universities.
“They’re doing real science,” McCrady said. “The answers are not in the back of the book.”
Senior Jimmy Henderson has been working on the project since spring 2015. Henderson said he does support work on the project, including organizing and analyzing data and designing computer programs that control what the telescope photographs.
According to Henderson, MINERVA has given him the opportunity to travel to research conferences and network with other scientists, including several that work in graduate programs he applied to. Henderson has also co-authored a published research paper, an opportunity that he said most undergraduates do not have.
“In a very real way, it’s an introduction to the world of research science,” Henderson said.