Steven finished his undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary in 2017, with a major in astrophysics. He is thrilled to be joining iREx first as an intern during the summer of 2017, and then as a MSc student in Björn Benneke‘s team at iREx.
He worked with Professor Benneke during the summer of 2017 on transmission spectra obtained with the HST. Observations of a hot, Saturn-mass exoplanet was compared to the predictions of atmospheric models and simulations. This analysis allowed for better interpretation of transmission spectra for exoplanets of varying mass, size, and temperature. Such observations also allowed for atmospheric properties such as metallicity (i.e. composition) and the presence of clouds or hazes to be determined. This research is a way to prepare for similar observations with JWST in the coming years.
This summer I worked with Hubble Space Telescope data using the transit spectrum extraction code ExoTEP and atmospheric modelling code SCARLET (both developed by my supervisor Björn Benneke). I spent a lot of time optimizing and adding new atmospheric physics to the SCARLET code in particular. Specifically, we were looking at data for an exoplanet similar to Saturn in mass from a recent HST survey of 16 exoplanets spanning a range of masses and equilibrium temperatures. The objective will eventually be to constrain the atmospheric composition (particularly the metallicity) of this planet and determine to what extent clouds and/or hazes are present in its atmosphere. Ultimately, the aim is to develop a broader understanding of the wider exoplanet population in preparation for new, more powerful observatories like JWST coming online in the next few years.
Studying exoplanets in this way is particularly exciting because I have the chance to compare actual observational data to the results of detailed atmospheric models. This gave me the chance to gain experience on both the observational and computational side of things. Going forward with my MSc at UdeM, I will continue to work in both of these regimes.
I started my project in June. Now, in August, we have preliminary results which are promising but most certainly not final. I will be continuing this project for my master thesis, and we aim to submit our results to the AAS journals by the end of this year (2017).
The hands on experience working with a detailed code such as SCARLET provided me the unique opportunity to dramatically improve my coding skills. Working with such a well-optimized and concisely written code probably taught me as much about programming as multiple computer science courses did.
Trying to understand and improve upon someone else’s code, especially coming from a background of having done no truly object-oriented-programming, was the biggest challenge. However, this also turned out to be one of the most important things I learned and will no doubt help me tremendously in the years to come.
Just getting the chance work on exoplanet research was pretty much a dream come true. I’ve wanted to end up in this area of astronomy since I decided I would major in astrophysics back in high school.