Physics: Sixth Form Students Explore Alien Atmospheres

Physics: Sixth Form Students Explore Space at University of Sussex

On the 12th of December 2013 there was a talk by Dr Jo Barstow from the University of Oxford at the University of Sussex and, thankfully, harsh atmospheric conditions did not deter attendees!

The lecture, entitled 'Atmospheres on Other Worlds' saw the hall well-filled as Dr Barstow began talking about her own research on the atmospheres of planets within our solar system.

She went on to explain how she has moved onto researching planets that are further away, otherwise known as exoplanets. We cannot see these planets as their stars are too bright and obscure our view, so mankind has to detect them indirectly.

As Dr Barstow explained, there are two main techniques for indirect detection: radial velocity and transits. Using these techniques, researchers can find the period, size and mass of planets, however Dr Barstow's research goes much further than this.

As she explained, Dr Barstow wants to investigate the atmospheres of exoplanets to see if they are habitable (Earth-like); such a planet would have high oxygen levels in its atmosphere and low water and carbon dioxide.

The technique she uses to analyse the atmospheres of exoplanets is spectroscopy - looking at the light signatures of planets as they move in front of and behind their respective stars.

Dr Barstow went on to talk about the future and 3 new missions, such as TESS which looks to investigate nearby brighter stars, which would allow us to get stronger signals (at the moment, we are looking to find a signal of about 1 in 10,00, which is incredibly hard) and to find smaller planets.

James Baldwin

Deputy Head of School