Dominic Oddo, a University of New Mexico Department of Physics and Astronomy graduate student, was awarded the NASA FINESST grant to fund his research for three years through the end of his Ph.D.
Unlike other NASA grants, the student participant (Future Investigator) defines the FINESST project and is the primary author of the research proposal. This year, the selection rate for these awards was just 10%. The award is for a total of $150,000. The award will typically cover the later stages of a graduate student's funding until graduation and is usually competitive.
About the NASA FINESST award: Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) solicits proposals from accredited U.S. universities and other eligible organizations for graduate student-designed and performed research projects that contribute to the Science Mission Directorate's (SMD) science, technology, and exploration goals. The graduate student shall have the primary initiative to define the proposed FINESST research project and must be the primary author, with input or supervision from the proposal's Principal Investigator (PI) or mentor, as appropriate. The proposal must present a well-defined research problem/activity and justify its scientific significance to NASA. FINESST awards are research grants for up to three years and up to $50K annually.
"This award is very meaningful to me. Since it is directly an investment in me and the work that I'm doing, it means that the research area that I'm interested in is also of interest to others. In other words, it makes me feel like the work I'm doing is of interest and impactful to others as well. More broadly, it shows that the scope of exoplanet research (planets orbiting stars other than our sun) is expanding to include stars and stellar systems that are not like ours, which is very exciting," said Oddo.
Oddo's research studies planets in tight binary star systems, meaning two stars that orbit one another. He points out the relevance of this research because most stars in our galaxy are in binary or higher-order systems. Oddo says that we've only just begun to scratch the surface of planets in these systems.
Oddo's initial interest in planets in binary systems came when he completed a project about them for Dinesh Loomba's astrophysics course. At this point, he realized there were many open questions about this population of planets, and he took that idea and ran with it. "I also have my advisor Diana Dragomir to thank for encouraging me to pursue this research topic even when it doesn't exactly overlap with her expertise. I think we've both learned a lot about a new research area since beginning this project, and that's been helpful to me."
Oddo will use the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission data to find the occurrence rate of circumbinary planets (CBPs) in the galaxy. TESS is a space telescope optimized to locate exoplanets around nearby bright stars. It does so by staring at large portions of the sky and looking for when stars dip ever so slightly in brightness, which may indicate that a planet has passed in front of that star.
"I'm looking for CBPs, which are planets that orbit outside of both stars in a tight stellar binary. These are exceedingly interesting planets for a multitude of reasons, but some of the primary things are what they tell us about how planets and stars form in context and what our own solar system's place in the grand scheme of planetary systems is," said Oddo.
By finding the occurrence rate of CBPs, or the frequency with which these planets appear around binary stars, astronomers can more accurately understand how these systems form. This gives them much more context on whether systems like our Solar System are the most common form of planetary system in the galaxy or whether the miasma of binary stars in our universe is where we should be looking.
"I'm sifting through TESS data to search for instances when circumbinary planets pass in front of their host stars and cause those dips, which are known as transits. The planets I find will dramatically increase the sample of known CBPs, allowing us to delve deeper into this population and address lots more outstanding science questions," stated Oddo.
Oddo has developed a great deal of Python code to find and characterize CBP signatures efficiently and accurately, including ways to tell whether a signal is due to a planet or something else (a false positive) masquerading as one.
As a NASA Future Investigator, Oddo will search for planets orbiting pairs of stars (circumbinary planets) using TESS observations.