Exo-Planet Hunting Tips for Amateur Astronomers
You may think as an amateur exo-planet hunter you have very little chance of finding one, but that is far from the truth. Amateur astronomers play an important role in the search for these elusive planets, and amateurs have even found some. On July 7th of 2005, Ron Bissinger detected a fragmented transit of the planet HD 149026b. After two more occasions of studying fragmented transits of HD 149026b Ron was able to build a combined light curve of all three nights, becoming the third nonprofessional astronomer to find a planet outside our Solar System.
If you want to skip the process of attempting to find an exo-planet on your own there are means of studying already gathered data in hopes of finding one. As mentioned above, the project Systemic offers the chance to volunteers and the website for Transitsearch.org offers nonprofessionals the chance to analyze sets of suspected exo-planets waiting to be found!
As a nonprofessional astronomer you will need at least a 12-inch telescope, though larger is always better. A tracking device and software is required, and I suggest a good GPS system. Detecting an exo-planet will be impossible without a CCD (charge-coupled device used in capturing images, i.e., a camera), though they can be expensive, for the best results you are better off purchasing one with the highest number of megapixels.
Software that will be able to generate the star’s light curve in the form of graphs or bars is also needed. There are numerous brands of software, such as Photometric Pro, but I suggest doing a thorough search for yourself. You will also need a target star to begin your search, if you’re adventurous you can study any star chart and pick at random. I personally have an interest in Alpha Centauri, since it’s our closest neighbor, has no known planets and is the location of Pandora in Avatar! For those of you who are more conservative, you can find good suspect star systems at Transitsearch.org.
A guidebook is also highly recommended, and you can find many online including the ESA’s own A European Roadmap for Exoplanets, but again I suggest you do your own research. There many organizations that publish their own reports on exo-planets for download such as the Institute of Physics report on the hunt for exo-planets.
Besides a clear open space and a relatively dark sky, the most important things to have in your hunt for a planet outside our own system is practice, patience, dedication and wanderlust. If that isn’t for you or you grow weary of the hunt don’t be discouraged, there are companies that operate planet-hunting adventures, which allow clients to search for and find exoplanets that have already been catalogued. It might not be not as thrilling as locating a never before seen exoplanet, but it’s still just as amazing!
Some of these companies include the Phoenix Stargazing Tours, Museum, Evening Sky Tours in Sedona, Arizona and Astro Tours Hawaii.
As always keep your eyes to the sky, and hopefully you’ll discover an unknown extra-solar planet!