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Inspired by movie streaming services such as Netflix or Hulu, a Southwest Research Institute scientist developed a technique to look for stars likely to host giant, Jupiter-sized planets outside of our solar system. She developed an algorithm to identify stars likely to host giant exoplanets, based on the composition of stars known to have planets.
"My viewing habits have trained Netflix to recommend sci-fi movies I might like—based on what I've already watched. These watched movies are like the known star-exoplanet systems," said Dr. Natalie Hinkel, a planetary astrophysicist at SwRI. "Then, the algorithm looks for stars with yet-undetected planets—which are comparable to movies I haven't watched—and predicts the likelihood that those stars have planets."
Cake - Recipe - Ingredients - Stars - Elements
Just as a cake recipe includes some basic ingredients, stars need certain elements to make giant planets. Scientists can use spectroscopy, or the way that light interacts with atoms in the star's upper layers, to measure a star's composition, which includes materials such as carbon, magnesium and silicon. These elements are the ingredients for making a planet, because stars and planets are made at the same time and from the same materials. However, while there are a lot of ingredients in your kitchen, not all of them belong in a cake. This is where the movie-streaming algorithm comes in, predicting planets based on the elements in stars.
"We found that the most influential elements in predicting planet-hosting stars are carbon, oxygen, iron and sodium," Hinkel said. "The funny thing was that we were not expecting sodium to be a key ingredient for predicting a planet. But it must be an important link between stars and planets, because it kept popping up, even when looking at different combinations of elements."
Hinkel - Hypatia - Catalog - Database
Hinkel used the Hypatia Catalog , a publicly available stellar database she developed,...
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