Extrasolar Planet Transits: A Proof of Concept

With this winter term’s Selected Topics in Astronomy class, we chose to give the new 0.7m telescope a workout and see if it could produce results fine enough to detect extrasolar planets using the transit method. The transit method focuses on the slight apparent brightness changes in a star when one of its planets orbits in front of it from our viewpoint here on Earth. Many planets have been discovered this way: The Kepler Mission has over 2800 candidates and 2600 confirmed. The TESS mission has over 2600 candidates and 122 confirmed exoplanet discoveries. So, where to start?

We chose a well-known exoplanet, visible to us in the northern hemisphere, with a predicted brightness change that should be readily visible to our equipment. The predicted transit times needed to be well established and had to start and end during nighttime, so that we could detect the entire transit event. WASP-43b became the primary target. It has a 0.81 day orbit (FAST!) and is a large planet orbiting a small diameter star (spectral type K7 V), making for large changes in brightness. All we needed was a clear night when one of its transits was taking place. Using the Swarthmore exoplanet transit search site (https://astro.swarthmore.edu/transits/transits.cgi) we found a perfectly good transit opportunity on the night of 26 January. The goal was to start photometric observation an hour before the transit started, observe through the entire transit, then end an hour after the event. The goal was achieved!

Rc Magnitude vs Time (J.D.) for the transit and the check star.

Images were taken in rapid cadence, one minute integrations each, through an Rc filter to minimize the Earth’s atmospheric effects.

The image above shows the results of the data capture: two plots. The upper plot shows the magnitude of WASP-43 changing through the transit period in J-C Rc magnitudes. X: Time in J.D. Y: Rc observed magnitudes. The bottom plot is of a check star used to validate the data set. We used reference and check star Rc magnitudes from the AAVSO for this study. Note the error bars are small: these represent systemic errors in the measurements based on signal-to-noise values of the individual images. The variances in magnitudes, which are on the order of 0.010 mag, are caused by atmospheric changes and seeing conditions. Exeter, NH is very close to sea level, so we have a lot of air mass to observe through. With these conditions the dip of about 0.040 magnitude in WASP-43’s brightness was easily seen: a success!

This is also an indicator of the observatory’s capabilities. We now know that a typical winter observing run can expect 0.010 magnitude fluctuations in seeing conditions and that a star with m=12, we can expect an excellent signal-to-noise ratio. What’s next? To work on assisting scientists with solidifying the orbital periods of other less known exoplanet systems.