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Planet Hunters: Professor Ray Jayawardhana

Professor Jayawardhana (photo by Paola Scattolon

Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics, is a recognized international leader in the study of exo-planets and brown dwarfs. He's also the University of Toronto President’s Senior Advisor on Science Engagement - a role that draws on his abilities to connect with a broad audience outside the scientific community through popular articles, public lectures and media appearances and books.

On Nov. 15, The Nature of Things with David Suzuki airs a documentary based on Jayawardhana's most recent book, Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System.

The documentary includes interviews with Jayawardhana as well as a number of leading astronomers who are also U of T alumni: Sara Seager (MIT faculty), David Charbonneau (Harvard faculty) and Jaymie Matthews (UBC faculty).

U of T News spoke with Jayawardhana about his work, and what audiences can expect from the documentary.

Tell us a bit about your book, Strange New Worlds, on which this documentary is based.

Both the Planet Hunters television documentary and my book Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System tell the fascinating tale of a rapidly unfolding scientific revolution that could change the way we see ourselves and our place in the universe.
After centuries of speculation and decades of failed attempts, astronomers have found hundreds of planets and thousands more planet candidates circling distant stars over the past two decades. The diversity of worlds that is being revealed is truly remarkable. If anything, the pace of discovery has picked up dramatically in recent years. Now astronomers are on the verge of finding alien twins of the Earth -- planets that are roughly the size of the Earth with just the right temperatures to sustain liquid water on the surface. The news of this momentous discovery could come any day now.

What is it like to hunt for planets – do you spend a lot of solitary time in remote observatories?

It involves a combination of telescopes on the ground and in space. We do travel to remote observatories in Chile, Hawaii and the Canary Islands sometimes, but not always. These days many of our observations are carried out by staff scientists, based on our instructions, and we download the data electronically. Recently, my students, postdocs and I have been focused on characterizing planets that pass in front of their star – so-called transiting planets – through high-precision observations at facilities like the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope and the two Gemini Telescopes. We have also been pushing the limits of current instruments on the world's biggest telescopes to search for planets in wide orbits through direct imaging, in other words trying to capture actual pictures of alien worlds.

NASA's Kepler space telescope, launched three years ago, has transformed the field of exoplanet research with its ability to find transiting planets as small as the Earth. We are doing follow-up observations of some unusual Kepler candidates with telescopes on the ground. There was a public release of Kepler observations just a couple of weeks ago, so we are also analyzing those data in novel ways to look for hitherto unknown planets and to characterize known planet candidates.

Several of the scientists who appear in this documentary are U of T alumni – how did the university become such a source of astronomers and astrophysicists?

U of T has had a world-class astronomy program for many years, so it is not surprising that a number of our alumni have gone on to become prominent astrophysicists both in Canada and abroad. We pride ourselves in giving our students ample opportunities to get involved in frontline research even as undergraduates and as beginning graduate students. For example, one undergraduate who worked with me had the chance to observe at the Subaru telescope in Hawaii, one of the world's biggest, and to be a co-author of two journal papers.

We’ve seen tremendous public interest recently in astronomy-related events and talks on campus – perhaps most memorably around the transit of Venus. Why do you think people find the subject so compelling?

I think it's only natural for us to be interested in the world and the universe around us. Curiosity is a big part of what makes us human. It's a particularly exciting time for astronomy, and we find that people want to share in that excitement by attending our extensive public programs.