Searching for Exoplanets in the High Arctic
The team tested two Arctic Wide-field Cameras (AWCams) at Environment Canada’s Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), located 15 kilometres from Eureka, Nunavut. The AWCams are designed to search for transiting exoplanets around nearby, bright stars. In the High Arctic, without the interruption of daylight, such cyclical events are much more likely to be detected, especially at the longer orbital periods which are very difficult to reach from current ground-based observatories.
In total, the AWCams took over 44,000 images and produced precision light curves for approximately 70,000 stars. In research submitted to the Astrophysical Journal, Co-Principal Investigator Nicholas Law and the team demonstrate that the cameras can achieve the performance necessary to detect planets as small as Neptune around thousands of nearby stars like our sun, laying the groundwork for a more extensive survey next winter.
The researchers also measured the atmospheric turbulence, or astronomical seeing, at the site—a condition vital to understand before placing larger telescopes at the location. Graduate student, Wayne Ngan , spent 17 days at PEARL and says, “Despite the challenges of working in a cold, dark, and windy location, our tests indicate that the location has excellent potential for large telescopes like the Dunlap Institute’s half-meter telescope that’s currently undergoing testing in New Mexico.”
Law and the team look forward to returning to Ellesmere Island later this year. “Because of the continuous winter darkness, relative ease of access via the PEARL laboratory, and excellent astronomical conditions,” says Law, “we are all very excited about the arctic site’s exceptional potential.”