BYU Astronomy Research Group Joins the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC)

As of January 2021 BYU will be a member of the ARC Consortium (Link to Consortium) with access to the ARC 3.5-m telescope and the 0.5-m ARCSAT telescope.  The primary use of the ARC 3.5-m telescope time is for graduate student projects.  This provides a wide array of instrumentation that is currently being used to study objects in the solar system all the way to studies of the large scale structure of the Universe.

Other BYU Astronomy Facilities

In addition to our telescope time from the ARC consortium, we operate a number of our own astronomical facilities

West Mountain Observatory (West Mountain)

This is our mountain observatory at about 6600 ft above sea level.  This consists of three telescopes: 0.9-m, 0.5-m, and a 0.32-m. It is a 40 minute drive that ends in a 5 miles drive up a dirt road. The mountain itself can be seen from campus. We don't provide any tours of this facility.

Orson Pratt Observatory

The Orson Pratt Observatory is named for an early apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  It is our campus telescope facility and contains a wide variety of telescopes for student research and public outreach. We operate a 24" PlaneWave telescope in the main campus dome, plus a 16", two 12", one 8", and a 6" telescope on our observation deck.  The telescopes are all fully robotic. Beyond this we have a large sections of telescopes used on public nights.

Royden G. Derrick Planetarium (Planetarium)

This is a 119 seat, 39" dome planetarium with acoustically treated walls to allow it's use as a lecture room. Recently we upgraded to an E&S Digistar7 operating system with 4K projectors.  The planetarium is used for teaching classes, public outreach, and astronomy education research projects.

Selected Publications

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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Astrophys. J.
We discuss the discovery and characterization of the circumbinary planet Kepler-38b. The stellar binary is single-lined, with a period of 18.8 days, and consists of a moderately evolved main-sequence star (M-A = 0.949+/-0.059 M-circle dot and R-A = 1.757+/-0.034 R-circle dot) paired with a low-mass star (M-B = 0.249+/-0.010 M-circle dot and R-B = 0.2724+/-0.0053 R-circle dot) in a mildly eccentric (e = 0.103) orbit. A total of eight transits due to a circumbinary planet crossing the primary star were identified in the Kepler light curve (using Kepler Quarters 1-11), from which a planetary period of 105.595+/-0.053 days can be established. A photometric dynamical model fit to the radial velocity curve and Kepler light curve yields a planetary radius of 4.35+/-0.11 R-circle plus, or equivalently 1.12+/-0.03 R-Nep. Since the planet is not sufficiently massive to observably alter the orbit of the binary from Keplerian motion, we can only place an upper limit on the mass of the planet of 122 M-circle dot(7.11 M-Nep or equivalently 0.384 M-Jup) at 95% confidence. This upper limit should decrease as more Kepler data become available.
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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Science
We report the detection of Kepler-47, a system consisting of two planets orbiting around an eclipsing pair of stars. The inner and outer planets have radii 3.0 and 4.6 times that of Earth, respectively. The binary star consists of a Sun-like star and a companion roughly one-third its size, orbiting each other every 7.45 days. With an orbital period of 49.5 days, 18 transits of the inner planet have been observed, allowing a detailed characterization of its orbit and those of the stars. The outer planet's orbital period is 303.2 days, and although the planet is not Earth-like, it resides within the classical "habitable zone," where liquid water could exist on an Earth-like planet. With its two known planets, Kepler-47 establishes that close binary stars can host complete planetary systems.
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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Astrophys. J.
Transit timing variations provide a powerful tool for confirming and characterizing transiting planets, as well as detecting non-transiting planets. We report the results of an updated transit timing variation (TTV) analysis for 1481 planet candidates based on transit times measured during the first sixteen months of Kepler observations. We present 39 strong TTV candidates based on long-term trends (2.8% of suitable data sets). We present another 136 weaker TTV candidates (9.8% of suitable data sets) based on the excess scatter of TTV measurements about a linear ephemeris. We anticipate that several of these planet candidates could be confirmed and perhaps characterized with more detailed TTV analyses using publicly available Kepler observations. For many others, Kepler has observed a long-term TTV trend, but an extended Kepler mission will be required to characterize the system via TTVs. We find that the occurrence rate of planet candidates that show TTVs is significantly increased (similar to 68%) for planet candidates transiting stars with multiple transiting planet candidates when compared to planet candidates transiting stars with a single transiting planet candidate.
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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Astrophys. J. Lett.
We report on the long-term dynamical evolution of the two-planet Kepler-36 system, which consists of a super-Earth and a sub-Neptune in a tightly packed orbital configuration. The orbits of the planets, which we studied through numerical integrations of initial conditions that are consistent with observations of the system, are chaotic with a Lyapunov time of only similar to 10 years. The chaos is a consequence of a particular set of orbital resonances, with the inner planet orbiting 34 times for every 29 orbits of the outer planet. The rapidity of the chaos is due to the interaction of the 29: 34 resonance with the nearby first-order 6: 7 resonance, in contrast to the usual case in which secular terms in the Hamiltonian play a dominant role. Only one contiguous region of phase space, accounting for similar to 4.5% of the sample of initial conditions studied, corresponds to planetary orbits that do not show large-scale orbital instabilities on the timescale of our integrations (similar to 200 million years). Restricting the orbits to this long-lived region allows a refinement of estimates of the masses and radii of the planets. We find that the long-lived region consists of the initial conditions that satisfy the Hill stability criterion by the largest margin. Any successful theory for the formation of this system will need to account for why its current state is so close to unstable regions of phase space.
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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Astrophys. J. Suppl. Ser.
We report the distribution of planets as a function of planet radius, orbital period, and stellar effective temperature for orbital periods less than 50 days around solar-type (GK) stars. These results are based on the 1235 planets (formally "planet candidates") from the Kepler mission that include a nearly complete set of detected planets as small as 2 R-circle plus. For each of the 156,000 target stars, we assess the detectability of planets as a function of planet radius, R-p, and orbital period, P, using a measure of the detection efficiency for each star. We also correct for the geometric probability of transit, R-star/a. We consider first Kepler target stars within the "solar subset" having T-eff = 4100-6100 K, log g = 4.0-4.9, and Kepler magnitude Kp < 15 mag, i.e., bright, main-sequence GK stars. We include only those stars having photometric noise low enough to permit detection of planets down to 2 R-circle plus. We count planets in small domains of R-p and P and divide by the included target stars to calculate planet occurrence in each domain. The resulting occurrence of planets varies by more than three orders of magnitude in the radius-orbital period plane and increases substantially down to the smallest radius (2 R-circle plus) and out to the longest orbital period (50 days, similar to 0.25 AU) in our study. For P < 50 days, the distribution of planet radii is given by a power law, df/d log R = k(R)R(alpha) with k(R) = 2.9(-0.4)(+0.5), alpha = -1.92 +/- 0.11, and R equivalent to R-p/R-circle plus. This rapid increase in planet occurrence with decreasing planet size agrees with the prediction of core-accretion formation but disagrees with population synthesis models that predict a desert at super-Earth and Neptune sizes for close-in orbits. Planets with orbital periods shorter than 2 days are extremely rare; for R-p > 2 R-circle plus we measure an occurrence of less than 0.001 planets per star. For all planets with orbital periods less than 50 days, we measure occurrence of 0.130 +/- 0.008, 0.023 +/- 0.003, and 0.013 +/- 0.002 planets per star for planets with radii 2-4, 4-8, and 8-32 R-circle plus, in agreement with Doppler surveys. We fit occurrence as a function of P to a power-law model with an exponential cutoff below a critical period P-0. For smaller planets, P-0 has larger values, suggesting that the "parking distance" for migrating planets moves outward with decreasing planet size. We also measured planet occurrence over a broader stellar T-eff range of 3600-7100 K, spanning M0 to F2 dwarfs. Over this range, the occurrence of 2-4 R-circle plus planets in the Kepler field increases with decreasing T-eff, with these small planets being seven times more abundant around cool stars (3600-4100 K) than the hottest stars in our sample (6600-7100 K).
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BYU Authors: Darin Ragozzine, published in Nature
The Sun's equator and the planets' orbital planes are nearly aligned, which is presumably a consequence of their formation from a single spinning gaseous disk. For exoplanetary systems this well-aligned configuration is not guaranteed: dynamical interactions may tilt planetary orbits, or stars may be misaligned with the protoplanetary disk through chaotic accretion(1), magnetic interactions(2) or torques from neighbouring stars. Indeed, isolated 'hot Jupiters' are often misaligned and even orbiting retrograde(3,4). Here we report an analysis of transits of planets over starspots(5-7) on the Sun-like star Kepler-30 (ref. 8), and show that the orbits of its three planets are aligned with the stellar equator. Furthermore, the orbits are aligned with one another to within a few degrees. This configuration is similar to that of our Solar System, and contrasts with the isolated hot Jupiters. The orderly alignment seen in the Kepler-30 system suggests that high obliquities are confined to systems that experienced disruptive dynamical interactions. Should this be corroborated by observations of other coplanar multi-planet systems, then star-disk misalignments would be ruled out as the explanation for the high obliquities of hot Jupiters, and dynamical interactions would be implicated as the origin of hot Jupiters.