The sample of over 5,000 planets discovered beyond our solar system (exoplanets) provide us a first opportunity to constrain the dominant physics shaping how planetary systems form, and how they evolve over billions of years. Our team, the Planetary Origins and Evolution Lab, does this through a combination of theoretical and computational work. We are looking for collaborative and enthusiastic team members interested in committing to this spring for academic credit, with the possibility of continuing on as a paid researcher in the summer. We are currently focusing on two promising directions.
Atmospheric Mass Loss: It has recently become clear that, early in their lives, many planets orbiting close to their host star lose a significant fraction of their mass through intense stellar irradiation. Our group is currently working on simple physical models for how such atmospheric loss gravitationally torques planetary orbits, with the aim of searching for such orbital signatures in the observed exoplanet sample.
Collisional Sculpting of Planetary Systems: There is also strong evidence that planetary systems typically form with additional planets and subsequently destabilize, leading to violent collisions and orbital rearrangements. In this picture, the exoplanet population has been “dynamically sculpted” to leave only orbital configurations that are long-term stable.
Our recent work has elucidated the chaotic dynamics that leads to such collisions (why do such tiny gravitational tugs between planets make any difference at all?) through a combination of theoretical developments and machine learning techniques. We are now looking to apply those trained machine learning models, both to a) test this dynamical sculpting hypothesis against the observed exoplanet sample, and b) to provide independent constraints on planetary and orbital properties.
What Will We Do? We will create populations of planetary systems and computationally model their orbits with the open-source orbital mechanics REBOUND package, in conjunction with the analytical and machine learning stability classifiers in the SPOCK package (all in Python). We will then quantitatively search for the predicted orbital signatures in the observed exoplanet sample. We will also develop simple physical models for the effects of atmospheric mass loss on planetary orbits.
Essay Prompt: What interests you about this research and what do you hope to get out of this research experience (1 paragraph)? Which project are you most interested in pursuing? Why? Are you potentially interested in being hired over the summer to continue this research full time if funding is available?
You'll be working as part of a supportive and collaborative team to answer fundamental questions on the physical processes that dominantly shape planetary systems.