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Trottier Observatory able to see planet outside our solar system

SFU team able to see planet first discovered in 1996 for themselves

An artist's representation of what Tau Bootis B could look like.
An artist's representation of what Tau Bootis B could look like.

The Trottier Observatory has successfully detected a planet from beyond our solar system.

Tau Boötis B, also known as the Millennium Planet, is an exoplanet that was first discovered in 1996. Last summer, the Observatory’s team started trying to independently locate the planet and measure its properties.

With the aid of newly acquired technology, they utilized photometry (a method of detecting planets and stars reliant on light) and spectrometry (reliant on the speed of the planet) to locate the planet while measuring factors such as its diameter and mass. These allowed the astronomers to further calculate properties such as density and composition.

Despite the fact that Tau Boötis B is already relatively well-documented, the Observatory’s ability to perceive it themselves is an unprecedented step.

“I knew we wouldn’t be able to see [the planet] until the spring, and so I spent the winter learning how to use the [new] spectrograph,” stated professor Howard Trottier, discussing the journey leading up to the detection. “When the exoplanet was finally in our skies, I was ready to go.”

Once Trottier mastered the use of the spectrograph, he began teaching others with interest how to operate it through formal workshops. This group included SFU faculty and students alike.

In the wake of observing Tau Boötis B, Trottier hopes to include the techniques and equipment used in a future observational astronomy course, designed to accommodate students both within the sciences and outside of them. Although the professor has not yet submitted a proposal, he “knows the course [and its] structure.” Ideally, he hopes to be able to offer the class by Spring or Fall of 2017.

“One of the major functions of the Observatory is for students to use it to do things that they want to do,” he said. He went on to discuss the ramifications of the hypothetical class for non-science students specifically.

“The message to people is that science is not something over there that only somebody else can do. Anybody can do it,” he said. “[Astronomy is] accessible in that way.”

Trottier hopes to teach students how to operate the needed equipment, how to “find [their] way around the sky” using coordinates, and theory involving the instruments and working with data. This will culminate in an independent project proposed by students.

Aside from identifying exoplanets, Trottier noted that spectrometers can be used to study phenomena such as star movements and accretion disks, and to measure factors such as the distance between galaxies.

Trottier suggested the possibility that students would, in the future, be able to propose ways to take advantage of the Observatory’s equipment.

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