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Which exoplanets should we observe with future space-missions?

Students from Highams Park School with Orbyts fellows Cynthia Ho and Hannah Osborne

Since the very first exoplanet was discovered nearly 30 years ago, we have amassed detections of over 5000 planets orbiting distant stars. These planets are often very different to the ones found within our own solar system and so to better understand them we need specialised telescopes; in particular the Ariel mission by the European Space Agency is set to launch in 2029. Ariel will look at 1000 exoplanets to try and understand whether they have atmospheres that are similar to the Earth and potentially habitable. To prepare for the launch of the mission, the 1000 planets must be selected from a long list of potential targets. The problem is that each individual planet is only observable during a small window of time – when it passes in front of its parent star from our point of view on Earth (known as a transit). This means that we need extremely precise timings of these transit events for each planet Ariel will observe, otherwise we will waste precious telescope time and potentially miss the event altogether. Using the Las Cumbres Observatory (with huge thanks to the Faulkes Telescope Project) of telescopes across the world, the Orbyts group was able to select their chosen planet targets and plan and complete remote observations of the transit events. The students then used a software package and a code written in Python to find out the precise times that the planet transits occur. In total, the students were able to refine the transit times for 13 exoplanets, contributing to the preparatory work for the Ariel mission. The full results of the project was published in the peer-reviewed journal article:

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