Every star you see in the sky likely has one or more planets!

Artist conception of how many planets there may be in our Milky Way Galaxy. Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser.

What’s an exoplanet?

Check out this video for a short introduction of what an exoplanet is. There is even a cameo by a Unistellar eVscope in the credits! 

Exoplanet: A planet orbiting a star outside of our own solar system. Astronomers estimate that there are trillions and trillions of these extrasolar planets throughout the cosmos, which leaves the possibility of life outside of Earth high. 

You could also read more by checking out this blog by Unistellar Science Communication Specialist, Val Klavans: WHAT IS AN EXOPLANET? blog by Val Klavans 

Over 30 years ago exoplanets were only hypothesized–none yet were detected. Then in 1992, the most agreed upon “first detection” of an exoplanet around a pulsar revolutionized the field of astronomy. Since then, astronomers have detected thousands of exoplanets, and it is expected that the majority of all stars in the universe have exoplanets! However, exoplanet discovery has been done mostly through the use of expensive remote telescopes and highly technical techniques adopted mainly by professional astronomers and the most serious amateur astronomers. 

Unistellar is changing the game by democratizing astronomy and astronomy science research and now you and your eVscope can observe exoplanets with a few clicks on your smartphone and some dedicated time! 

With your Unistellar eVscope, you can help astronomers find and confirm the existence of exoplanets. In the past, exoplanet searches have required elaborate setups, high amounts of study and preparation, maybe a fancy degree, and a sky mostly free of light pollution. With new technologies, such as with the new Unistellar eVscope and the citizen science network we are developing in coordination with the SETI Institute (hyperlink to SETI) that is no longer the case!

With your Unistellar eVscope, you have the technology to detect planets orbiting other stars!

Read more or GET STARTED NOW

More on the Science & Discovery of Exoplanets!

Exoplanet Science Background

Extrasolar planets were once only realized in science fiction until the first discovered exoplanets were confirmed in the 1990s. Since then, the field of exoplanet research accelerated with the NASA Kepler spacecraft mission, which found thousands of exoplanets in our galaxy. It is now known that at least one exoplanet exists per star in our Milky Way galaxy (see Nature article, link: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature10684). 

Following Kepler’s successful exoplanet mission, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is currently working to survey most of the sky for nearby exoplanets and find the best Earth or super-Earth size planets for future missions capable of further characterization, such as determining the makeup of their atmospheres and searching for biosignatures that could indicate the presence of life.

Image credit: NASA, adapted by D. Peluso.

What kinds of exoplanets are out there? Do they look like and have the same characteristics as the planets in our solar system? Do any of them have life? Is there another earth? These are just some of the many questions around this exciting field of research, and some of these questions are starting to have answers. However, with hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy there are a lot of possibilities, and a lot of space, to explore!

How are these exoplanets found? 

There are many different exoplanet detection methods, but the most successful and well-known technique is the transit photometry method. With this method, astronomers point their telescopes to a star that may have an exoplanet orbiting around it, and if they detect a temporary dimming of the star’s light over time, then that could indicate a planet passing between us and that star (see How Do We Detect Exoplanets? from Planetary Society below). 

Image credit: The Planetary Society.

These candidate exoplanets, many of which are discovered by space-based telescopes like Kepler and TESS, need to be observed further by ground-based telescopes to confirm their existence, rule out non-planetary causes, and conduct other measurements to more thoroughly characterize and understand the planet. This is where you and your Unistellar eVscope can help!

eVscopes and exoplanet science

Results are promising! The Unistellar network has been successful in detecting dozens of exoplanet transits. A notable example is the detection of exoplanet Qatar-1b by citizen astronomer, Julien de Lambilly, with his eVscope in Switzerland in April 2020. Since then, the network composed of thousands of eVscopes has contributed to Unistellar projects with 100+ transit light curves collected by amateur astronomers, including newcomers to the field who had never conducted scientific observations before.

Image caption: Transit light curves like this one are used to visualize an exoplanet transit from collected data. The example above shows the transit of a gas giant planet, Qatar-1b, which caused the flux (brightness) of its host star to dim and then return to normal. The depth of the dip can tell us about the planet’s size as compared to the star. Observation by Unistellar eVscope citizen scientist, Julien de Lambilly (Switzerland). Data processed by Tom Esposito (SETI Institute) with the Unistellar data pipeline and EXOTIC photometry and modeling package (Exoplanet Watch).

In addition to the excitement of detecting your own exoplanet with an eVscope, your observations can contribute to exciting science through programs such as NASA’s Exoplanet Watch. Led by a team at NASA JPL, Exoplanet Watch is a citizen science initiative to make studies by large professional telescopes more efficient in the future. Next-generation space missions that will follow TESS, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, ARIEL, and PLATO, will look more deeply at the most interesting exoplanets found today to study their atmospheres and search for possible signs of life. 

However exciting these future missions and their potential discoveries are, Dr. Rob Zellem (Exoplanet Watch project lead) and his research group have noted that the mid-transit times and ephemerides for these planets become “stale” (i.e. the predicted times of future transits will be less accurate) over time. Small citizen science telescopes, like your Unistellar eVscope, can help keep these times “fresh” so that when more powerful telescopes launch they are able to efficiently conduct important science on these planets. See the Zellem et al. (2020) article in Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific to learn more: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1538-3873/ab7ee7 

Ready to get started?! 

Check out the current listing of targets on our Exoplanet Transit Predictions page, read the Observing Exoplanets with the Unistellar eVscope “how to” PDF guide, and join our citizen science community for exoplanets on Slack. Email us at citizenscience@unistellaroptics.com to join the community.