Graduate-level physicists from the University of Dallas have begun using the Gunnison Valley Observatory for extrasolar planet research. Extrasolar planet or exoplanet research is one of the emerging frontiers of astronomy, as our observational instruments become more fine-tuned and accurate.
Exoplanets have long been hypothesized to have existed but defied detection of any kind until 1988. Verification of the first exoplanet had to wait until 2003 due to caution and the lack of sufficient instrumentation. Since then, some 347 planets outside of our solar system have been verified.
The first exoplanet to be directly verified visually was Fomalhaut b orbiting around the bright star Fomalhaut by the Hubble Space Telescope just last year.
Fomalhaut, Arabic for “mouth of the whale,” is one of the brighter stars visible to the naked eye found in the constellation Piscis Austrinus, or Southern Fish.
Fomalhaut transits the sky following the constellations Scorpio and Sagittarius, meaning that right now it can be seen rising in the southeast around 5 a.m. As the summer progresses we’ll be able to see Fomalhaut more prominently earlier in the night.
Exoplanet research falls on the applied side of astronomical research. If humans ever expect to personally explore the greater reaches of our own galaxy, we will need to identify hospitable places with which to interlink so that life support and fuel supplies can be replenished without having to return to Earth.
Gunnison Valley Observatory houses the largest public telescope in Colorado. Astronomy lecture series and open viewings are Friday evenings at sunset until September 25. The observatory is located on the left exactly two miles down Gold Basin Road, the road to Hartman Rocks, from the turn-off of Highway 50. Please contact the GVO at (970) 642-1111 or www.gunnisonobservatory.org for further information or to make a reservation.