AAVSO: American Association of Variable Star Observers

Exoplanet Watch: Utilizing Small Telescopes Operated by Citizen Scientists for Transiting Exoplanet Follow-up (Abstract)

Volume 48 number 2 (2020)

Robert T. Zellem
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, M/S 169-237, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, CA 91109; robert.t.zellem@jpl.nasa.gov


(Abstract only) Due to the efforts by NASA’s Kepler and TESS and numerous ground-based surveys, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of transiting exoplanets ideal for follow-up spectroscopic atmospheric characterization. However, over time their ephemerides could become so increasingly uncertain that significant overhead would need to be added to an observing run to ensure the detection of the entire transit. As a result, follow-up observations to characterize the atmospheres of these exoplanets would necessitate less-efficient use of an observatory’s time —particularly for large platforms such as JWST, ARIEL, Astro2020 Decadal mission, and any other large observatory where minimizing observing overheads is a necessity. Here we demonstrate the power of citizen scientists operating smaller observatories (≤ 1-m class) to keep ephemerides “fresh,” defined here as when the uncertainty in the mid-transit time is less than half the transit duration. We advocate for the creation of a community-wide effort to perform ephemeris maintenance on transiting exoplanets by citizen scientists. Such observations can be conducted with even a 6-inch telescope, which has the potential to save up to 358.66 days for a 1000- planet survey. A network of small telescopes dedicated to ephemerides maintenance (rather than exoplanet discovery) could rapidly observe high-priority targets, freeing up time on larger observatories to monitor, e.g., Earth-sized objects transiting dim M-dwarf stars. Observations with this network could also provide the opportunity to resolve stellar blends, follow-up long-period transits in short-baseline TESS fields, and search for new planets or measure the masses of known planets with transit timing variations. This presentation is based on work performed as part of the NASA’s Universe of Learning project and is supported by NASA under cooperative agreement award number NNX16AC65A. The NASA’s Universe of Learning (NASA’s UoL) project creates and delivers science-driven, audience-driven resources and experiences designed to engage and immerse learners of all ages and backgrounds in exploring the universe for themselves. The competitively-selected project represents a unique partnership between the Space Telescope Science Institute, Caltech/IPAC, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University, and is part of the NASA Science Mission Directorate Science Activation program.