Joshua Winn, Professor of Astrophysical Sciences, has been awarded a three-year research grant for $380K from the Heising-Simons Foundation for his project titled, “Finding the Shortest Period Planets with TESS”. Winn plans to search for planets with the smallest possible orbits, sometimes called 'ultra-short-period planets’ or 'lava worlds'.
While exoplanetary science is often portrayed as a quest for planets that might support life; Winn's group hopes to find planets that are highly unlikely to support life. These planets orbit so closely around a star that their surfaces are heated to thousands of degrees; well above the melting point of most rocks. Incredibly hot planets such as these were first discovered in 2009 by detecting the miniature eclipses that occur each time the planet's orbit carries it in front of the star. Their orbits are so small that it takes less than one day for the planet to circle around. The current record-holder for the smallest orbit completes a full orbit every 4.2 hours.
Winn's group will use data from the forthcoming NASA mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), to search for more of these eclipsing lava worlds. The TESS spacecraft has 4 small telescopes that will scan nearly the entire sky over two years, searching for planetary eclipses. The key advantage of TESS is that it will examine stars that are brighter and closer to our own solar system than previous surveys of the sky. This will make the new planets much easier to characterize. The new data will also allow planets to be discovered around a more diverse collection of stars, very different from the Sun in mass or age. Ultimately, he hopes to gain clues about the formation and structure of these strange new worlds. Professor Winn believes that often times studying extreme cases of exoplanetary science can be the most revealing when trying to understand the complex process of planet formation.
More information on the Science Program at the Heising-Simons Foundation can be found here