How One Idaho Professor's Search For Distant Planets Could Lead To Clues Of Earth's Origin

Jan 30, 2015

A Boise State professor is looking for clues about Earth's origin by studying planets around distant stars.

Brian Jackson is an assistant professor in Boise State’s Department of Physics. He’s using a $271,000 grant from NASA and data from the Kepler space observatory to study planets that are very close to their host stars.

NASA’s Kepler mission was to find planets in the habitable zone, not too close or too far from their star. Like Earth, those planets could be in just the right spot to support life.

But Jackson’s looking at a different set of planets, which could help answer questions about the formation of our solar system. These planets are very, very close to their stars.

“Some of these planets are almost on the verge of skimming their star’s surface," says Jackson. "So they’re a hundred times closer to their host star then the Earth is to the sun. One planet only takes four hours to travel around its star."

Jackson says he wants to find out how these exoplanets -- planets that revolve around a star other than our sun -- ended up so close to their host stars.

“Planets probably form from the leftovers after a star forms, all the sort of gas and dust that’s left over,” says Jackson. But so close to the star, it would have been much too hot for the planets to form where we find them. “They probably formed much farther out and then some process or combination of processes brought them into these very close in orbits.”

Jackson's exoplanets could be what's left behind when gas giants like Jupiter get too close to the sun.
Credit NASA on the Commons / Flickr

Think about Jupiter. Like our own gas giant, these planets may have started out as gassy orbs before wandering too close to their star. Their outer gas shell would be ripped away by the star, leaving the tiny rocky seed “cores” of the planet, which quickly orbit their sun.

But how does that relate to the Earth?

“The formation of Jupiter really dominated the evolution of our planetary system,” says Jackson. “The formation of the Earth and all the other smaller planets in our solar system are very sensitive to the way in which Jupiter formed and evolved. So if we can understand something about the formation of gas giants, then that will help us to understand something about how planets like our own formed.”

He says on average, every star in our galaxy hosts at least one planet. That means there are billions upon billions of planets in our galaxy alone. Jackson says that’s a stirring thought.

“Looking at these kinds of questions about the origins and evolutions of the planets, these are really key questions that we’ve been asking ourselves as humans for tens of thousands of years. Where do we come from? Where are we going? So this kind of research really addresses these very deep, fundamental questions.”

Jackson and his group of fellow scientists have found four of these exoplanets so far and hope to find more of them during the three-year grant from NASA.

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2014 Boise State Public Radio