Learn about Robo-AO during this month's Mauna Kea Skies program

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center will host researcher Christoph Baranec, of the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy, for a presentation 7 p.m. Friday on Robo-AO, the first autonomous laser adaptive optics system, which will be used on the UH 2.2-meter telescope.

“Rise of the Machines with Robo-AO” is the topic for this month’s Mauna Kea Skies program.

NASA’s Kepler mission has been successful: It discovered thousands of planet candidates and is revolutionizing the understanding of the planetary population in our galaxy.

Scientists now know rocky planets are very common, that low-mass stars host more short-period rocky planets than high-mass stars and a large fraction of stars likely have Earth-sized planets in their habitable zones, a crucial result for the probability of life elsewhere in the universe.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of the individual candidates remain unconfirmed, said Baranec. Currently, there are 77 confirmed planetary systems and 2,621 unconfirmed. Current predications suggest at least 10-15 percent of Kepler’s planetary candidates might be astrophysical false positives and a fraction of confirmed planets also have incorrectly determined planetary parameters because of confusing sources.

“The false positives thus greatly limit the ability to interpret individual objects, to evaluate differences in planetary statistics between different stellar populations, and even generate fully robust statistical studies of the planetary population seen by Kepler,” said Baranec.

In order to fully validate the individual Kepler planets, astronomers must measure the companion population around every Kepler candidate in a target sample.

At the hundreds-of-light-years distances and the tens-of-astronomical units expected separations of Kepler candidates, researchers need to search thousands of stars for companions at much finer angular resolutions than the seeing limit.

Using adaptive optics system to scan thousands of targets in this manner has until now been infeasible. Baranec’s team recently commissioned Robo-AO, a new autonomous laser-guide-star adaptive optics and science instrument specifically designed to perform high-angular resolution imaging in an extremely efficient manner.

The prototype system at the 60-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory can image objects 10 times finer than the natural seeing limit and has observed approximately 10,000 objects since commissioning in 2012.

The team has imaged two-thirds of the Kepler candidates and should finish the entire survey by next summer. Members expect to be able to validate approximately 1,000 of the Kepler candidates at the 99 percent confidence level, as well as reject more than 100 as being likely false positives.

Looking to the future, Baranec will bring this technology to the UH telescope, which will enhance the already excellent conditions at Mauna Kea, and benefit from a larger aperture which will enable angular resolutions approaching that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Specifically, the new facility Robo-AO system will be uniquely poised to vet a majority of exoplanet host candidates identified by NASA’s next transiting exoplanet mission, TESS, which might exceed the number of Kepler objects by an order of magnitude, projects Baranec, who joined the UH Institute for Astronomy faculty at the beginning of July. He earned his bachelor of science degree in astronomy from the California Institute of Technology in 2001, and his Ph.D. in optical sciences from the University of Arizona in 2007.

Baranec specializes in creating adaptive optics systems, which compensate for turbulence in Earth’s atmosphere that normally blurs light from celestial bodies.

During the presentation at the astronomy center, Christopher Phillips, ‘Imiloa’s planetarium manager, also will provide observational highlights of the current night sky over Hawaii, pointing out prominent constellations and stars one can see during this time of year.

General admission is $10.


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