Are there Earth-like planets “out there?” The
question of whether or not the stars of the night sky are encircled
by families of planets similar to our own has intrigued astronomers
and the general public alike for centuries. No one knows if there are
other planets that resemble the Earth’s characteristics, but ongoing
searches now deliver newly discovered planets by the dozen, and many
of these are far more strange than anyone had imagined. On Wednesday,
April 3, 2002, Dr. David Charbonneau, a Millikan Postdoctoral Scholar
in Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, will discuss
the direct evidence for planets outside our solar system, evidence
that has only come about in the last decade. His talk is part of the
ongoing Earnest C. Watson Lecture Series that takes place on the
Caltech campus.

Charbonneau, a recent import to the Caltech astronomy staff from the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one of the world’s
leading authorities on the search for “transiting planets,” or
planets that should be detectable as they pass into the line of sight
between their host star and Earth. Indeed, Charbonneau was the first
to detect the passage of a planet across its parent star.

Last November, Charbonneau and his colleagues made international news
when they discovered the first planetary atmosphere outside our own
solar system, work done using the Hubble Space Telescope. That work
continues using data from the Hubble and from the Keck Observatory in
Hawaii. He is also leading a team at Caltech and NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory to build a new telescope at the Palomar
Observatory in Southern California. This instrument will operate as
part of a network that searches thousands of Sun-like stars to detect
orbiting planets.

In his talk, Charbonneau will introduce our neighboring planetary
systems and describe how the direct detection of those elusive,
small, Earth-like worlds may be much closer than you might think.

Caltech has offered the Watson Lecture Series for almost 80 years,
since it was conceived by the late Caltech physicist Earnest Watson
as a way to explain science to the local community. Seating is
available on a free, no-ticket-required, first-come, first-served
basis. The lecture will begin at 8 p.m. in Beckman Auditorium, 332
South Michigan Avenue, on Caltech’s campus in Pasadena.

For more information, call 1(888)2CALTECH (1-888-222-5832) or (626) 395-4652.