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Hunting alien worlds

ASU scientist: There are a range of planets we don't have in our solar system.
Check out the newest and sexiest field in astronomy — exoplanets.
December 23, 2015

ASU astrophysicist an expert on the search for another Earth

One of the best things in science fiction is bizarre alien planets. Ice planets, lava planets, water planets, planets with two suns, planets where you can see Saturn-like rings in the sky.

Nowadays, that’s one of the best things in astronomy too, because all those types of planets actually exist.

Welcome to exoplanets, the newest and sexiest field in astronomy, where in the hunt for alien worlds the Holy Grail is discovering another Earth.

Almost every week another discovery in the field makes the news. Earlier this month researchers found out 10 Jupiter-like planets they studied aren’t as hot and dry as suspected; clouds are hiding signs of water.

Astrophysicist Jennifer Patience of Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is an expert in exoplanets. She is involved in high-precision imaging of exoplanet systems and protoplanetary disks (a rotating circumstellar disk of dense gas surrounding a young newly formed star). She was involved in the first image detection of a multi-planet system around a particular type of star in 2008. She discussed the latest trends in the 23-year-old field.

“There are thousands of exoplanets known — several thousand,” Patience said. “My group is specifically looking for them. … I think people are sometimes surprised to realize how many planets are out there. They’re still being discovered. One of the up-and-coming areas is characterizing those planets. There’s often quite a bit of differences with our own solar system, so it’s a chance to explore the diversity of the planets that are out there.”

The first exoplanet was discovered in the early 1990s. It was found around a pulsar, a remnant of a supernova. It wasn’t seen; it was measured.

“When a planet orbits a star, it has a tiny gravitational tug on the star, just as the star has a tug on the planet,” Patience said. “We measure that shift in the velocity of the star. That’s how the first exoplanet was discovered. We didn’t see it.”

That changed in 2009, when the $600 million Kepler space observatory launched into orbit by NASA, with the aim of determining how common Earth-like planets are across the Milky Way galaxy. What Kepler has turned up is startling.

“There have been real surprises,” Patience said. “A lot of these exoplanets are very different from our own solar system.”

Planets with dual suns have been discovered — think Tatooine in “Star Wars.”

“There are planets with the Tatooine arrangement, with double stars,” she said. “Those are some of the interesting, very different systems compared to our own. There are planets in orbit around a pair of stars. There are also examples of planets where there is a planet around one star, but that star has a neighboring star. You can get different arrangements of the binaries.”

There are a range of planets out there we don’t have in our solar system. Some are giant — 20 times bigger than Jupiter. Some have entire solar systems packed into a tight orbit like Mercury’s. If you were standing on the surface of one, the others could appear like the moon does in Earth’s night sky if they were close enough.

“You could see some amount of the size of the planet,” Patience said.

Many exoplanets are too close to their host stars to be habitable. “They can be up into the thousands of degrees,” Patience said. Most are giants, so they’re gaseous. If they turn out to be rocky, they could potentially be lava worlds.

A planet surrounded by beautiful rings.

One planet scientists have 
dubbed a super-Saturn 
has more than 30 rings 
200 times larger than Saturn’s.

Photo courtesy Ron Miller; 
top image by JPL/Caltech

“If a rocky planet is that close to the host star, you’d have to be thinking about some amount of molten material,” Patience said.

One planet scientists have dubbed a super-Saturn has more than 30 rings 200 times larger than Saturn’s. If it replaced Saturn in our solar system, its rings would be more visible than the moon.

“There’s a lot of diversity out there,” Patience said. “They’re all very interesting, but in very different ways. … We’re really working toward the characterization aspects of these new systems.”

The closest exoplanet is a little more than 16 light-years away (or about 96 trillion miles).

“There are thousands known, and there are many fewer that we’ve been able to investigate the atmospheres,” Patience said. “It’s a lot harder to investigate the atmospheres.”

Depending on the temperature of the star, there is a range of orbits where liquid water could be present. They can’t be too close to the star like Mercury because they’d be too hot. They can’t be too far away like Mars, because they’d be cold.

“It’s also sometimes called the Goldilocks zone,” Patience said. “There is this growing number of planets that are in the habitable zone. For the most part they are around those smaller stars because the orbits that could be searched so far are closer orbits. To catch the habitable zone you need to be around the lower-mass stars.”

There are around 25 Goldilocks planets: Earth-size, and in the right orbit. Last month the most promising Earth-like planet — Kepler 438b — was found to be possibly uninhabitable. The planet is in the Goldilocks zone, but it orbits a cooler low-mass star. This type of star has a lot of flare activity, so the planet is bombarded by intense radiation and plasma flares.

“Although it’s in the liquid water zone, it might have other complications,” Patience said of Kepler 438b.

Kepler 438b is tidally locked to the star, so the same face of the planet is always turned to the star (similar to the moon and Earth). Could there be a thin habitable edge at the line between the star side and the dark side? Imagine living in Arizona, but not being able to go to California because there’s too much radiation, and not being able to go to New Mexico because it’s dark and frigid.

“This is certainly an area that’s under research,” Patience said. “What is the full scope of those effects? … That’s what’s really exciting about this field. It’s a chance to encounter planetary systems that we don’t have analogs of in our own solar system. We can investigate what are the implications of having one hemisphere irradiated and one dark side. What are the wind patterns? What is the climate? There are a lot of interesting questions.” 

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You sunk my bioengineering class!

The ASU engineering class that plays, learns — and saves the world from zombies.
How creating a board game prepares ASU students for post-college jobs.
December 23, 2015

How one ASU professor uses board games to teach

It’s Professor LaBelle, in the laboratory, with a pacemaker, and no one is Sorry!

Need a Clue? It’s one engineering professor’s creative approach that’s captivating students.

“I usually have 100 percent attendance in my class Friday mornings at 8 a.m.,” said Jeffrey Labelle, assistant professor in the School of Biological Health and Systems EngineeringThe School of Biological Health and Systems Engineering is part of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. and the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University.

So, why is BME 382 — Biomedical Engineering Product Design and Development III — as popular as Park Place on Fridays when other classes are as deserted as Baltic Avenue?

The end game of the bioengineering class is to teach engineers how to make prototypes of medical devices like pacemakers. To accomplish this, LaBelle has his students form into teams and build real board games.

He said it’s not a Risk.

“I try to convince my students over the whole semester that this works,” he said. “The process of prototyping, it doesn’t really matter what it is — it’s the process that’s important. The board game allowed me to take the product out of the limelight and stay focused on the process.”

Students in the program study an FDA-regulated design curriculum for eight semesters. LaBelle’s class is the last semester before senior year, when they will take Biomedical Engineering Capstone Design.

“I wanted to cover in one semester what they will do in two semesters,” he said. “It had to be simple, short, sweet, focused. … I really believe that an engineer gets very, very good when they’ve built something first, and then go and design something else. It puts them in that box of what do I have to work with? What are my tools? What can I build with? After that, it’s the process of building something.”

Students start with soft skills, like team formation. (“I call it marriage counseling,” LaBelle said.) How will they work together? What roles will they play? Who does things at the last minute? Who is prepared ahead of time?

Teams begin by playing games and looking for specifications. “It doesn’t matter what product you have,” LaBelle said. “All products out there have specifications.”

Everyone back to the ancient Egyptians has played board games, so that end wasn’t a stretch for students. Bioengineering has design controls — what the rest of the world calls standards. For example, in board games, playing card size is standardized. Medical design has patents. Board games have copyrights.

“A lot of the processes are really the same,” LaBelle said. “A 3-D printer, a laser cutter, injection molder — tools of the trade in medical-device design — is also used in the gaming world. It’s so synergistic it’s hard not to see it’s so relevant, but zombies on the cover take your attention away from the fact it’s not a pacemaker.”

Most of the games involve zombies because of popularity (LaBelle cited “The Walking Dead” episode that 16 million people watched, crushing a football broadcast on the same night, which drew an audience of 13 million). Last semester’s Onslaught game challenged opponents to see who could rid the world of zombies and save humanity by buying first-aid kits and ammunition.

Sun Devil Survivor: BME Edition (no less terrifying) took various paths through the Tempe campus from the first day as a freshman through graduation.

Students develop the game, put together all the content, sculpt it, laser-cut it and produce what are incredibly professional-looking board games.

“They do a good job,” LaBelle said. “I call them really ugly final products or really good-looking betas.”

At the final, game producers, developers and creators show up to evaluate the games, along with reps from medical outfits like Mayo, Banner, W.L. Gore and Medtronic. Teams present their game ideas, with a five-minute pitch, to a panel of judges.

Remy Turner was one of the judges at the final. Turner is commercial programs manager at BioAccel, a non-profit organization that assists entrepreneurs with funding and business expertise to develop early-stage life science technologies. He explained why he turned out to judge the finals.

“We are working to improve the quality of engineers that come out of sources here in Arizona,” Turner said. “We give back to the educational community and offer our input in terms of projects. We work with Jeff’s class as an example of that.”

Turner thought the games were “pretty good,” almost all of them identifying a unique niche to target in terms of customers.

“All of the designs were applicable in terms of what the customer segments need,” he said. “One of the things that we try to pull in is a broader perspective on product design. I think they did a good job in trying to address customers' needs.”

LaBelle said he gets judges from across the spectrum to judge final products.

“Someone may come in as an engineer — we had one from IBM — who loves to play games,” he said. “They looked at it from an engineering standpoint — how well is it put together? — but then they looked at from a gaming standpoint: Is it fun?”


Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News