Cambridge Astronomical Association
Cambridge Young Astronomers


Speaker Meeting

Crackling on the line: characterizing giant planets with optical interferometry
Friday 20th August 2021
Start time : 20:00

Speaker : Dr. Mathias Nowak

On February 9th, 2020 the four Unit Telescopes of the European Very Large Telescope, in Chile, were simultaneously pointed towards the second brightest star of the southern constellation of Pictor.

The telescopes were not looking directly at the star, but actually looking at a the predicted location of a recently discovered giant planet.
The light from the star and its closest known planet, having journeyed for about 63 years before reaching the telescopes is then deflected underground in a series of tunnels, where it starts to bounce back between mirrors.
The objective: to make sure that all beams of light arrive synchronously in the cryostat of the GRAVITY beam combiner. There, all beams will be combined onto the detector, giving rise to a set of intricate interference patterns.
Upon analysis, these interferometric fringes will later reveal the presence of the planet, its exact location, and its luminosity.
A treasure chest of valuable information which, when combined with what we already knew about the planet, starts to shed some light on its origin.

In this talk, Mathias will delve into the details and challenges of this first direct confirmation of an indirectly detected planet, beta Pictoris c. He will show how interferences, often considered as noise or junk signals in other disciplines, can be used to our advantage to extract all sorts of information about exoplanets, and how this has the potential to drastically improve our understanding of the formation of giant planets.

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About our speaker:

Mathias was born in northeast France and became interested in science and engineering at high school. He studied fundamental physics for a few years at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Cachan, near Paris, and then his interest in space and astronomy led him to Toulouse, where he jointly pursued a degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Master’s degree in Astrophysics. For his PhD, Mathias went back to the French capital, where he joined the Observatoire de Paris. There he worked on new ways to observe giant planets. He developed the scientific instrument PicSat, a shoe-box-sized satellite, tailor made to observe the planet orbiting around Beta Pictoris, a star of the southern sky. Mostly interested in instrumental and observational astronomy, he is now working on a new technique to observe giant planets using long-baseline interferometry on the four combined 8-metre telescopes of the European Very Large Telescope in Chile. The question, ‘Are we alone in the Universe?’ is what drives Mathias’ interest in astronomy in general and exoplanets in particular. Although he thinks that we are nowhere near to an answer, he certainly hopes that significant progress will be made in the coming few decades.

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