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Vulcan South Science

Introduction

The Vulcan South project is taking advantage of the unique environment of the South Pole to conduct extrasolar planetary research. We are investigating the frequency of extrasolar planets and planetary systems using precise photometry and signal detection techniques. The goal of the project is detect a number of transiting extrasolar planets around stars bright enough to allow for extensive scientific follow-up.

Planet Detection

The discovery in 1995 of close-in giant exoplanets ("hot-Jupiters") raised new questions in astronomy and astrobiology. How can such close-in planets form and do these new objects hinder or help formation of Earth-size planets at distances where life can exist? We hope to improve our understanding of these hot-Jupiters by discovering enough of them to allow us to draw statistically significant conclusions about their formation, composition, and evolution. The unique conditions at the South Pole allow us to carry out a more efficient and more sensitive transit search than is possible from any other single site on Earth.

Star Field Selection

Starfield image and link

Star fields that are good for a wide field planet search contain the largest number of bright Sun-like stars, for our purposes F, G, and K dwarfs. The selection of a star field requires tradeoffs of many factors: we want to maximize the number of dwarf stars, maximize the average star brightness, minimize the average star size (that is, K & M stars are better than A & F stars), minimize the number of giant stars (too large to see a planet transit), and minimize the number of background stars (cause confusion and photometric errors).

Our first field, for observations starting in May 2004, will be centered on the star HD 84416 in the constellation Carina.

Site Selection

We have deployed our system at the South Pole. This site offers the best combination of logistical support and weather currently available in Antarctica. Additionally, the position of the plane of the Milky Way at the Pole allows for observations of rich star fields to be carried out through a constant amount of atmosphere. Because the stars do not rise and set, the noise caused by varying atmospheric extinction is minimized. Perhaps the most important advantage to observing from Antarctica is the three month winter night. In the lower latitudes, the day/night cycle prevents continuous observation of stars and thus significantly prolongs the observation time needed to detect a planet's transit. With these advantages in mind, Vulcan south hopes to be able to find Saturn-sized planets in this winter's observations.

Additional Information

There was a description of our project published in the May 2004 issue of Astronomy Now, and two web articles: Antarctic Astronomy: Exoplanet Hunt Moves Way Down Under at SPACE.com, and Planet Hunter's Paradise in the SETI Observer. In addition, an article appeared in the SETI Institute News (2nd Quarter 2003).

 

 


This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0126313. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation (NSF). For questions or comments, please contact Doug Caldwell.