GCC Students Learn Probability Life Exists Beyond Earth
PR 72 - March 4, 2012 Department of Public Relations and Marketing
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  Dr. Hanno Rein of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton describes his Exo-planet App, which catalogs existing found multi-planetary systems.
Deptford Twp.–When Gloucester County College students Daniel McCormick and Kyle Nemeth attended the Rittenhouse Astronomical Society meeting in November, they didn’t expect to encounter a concept so new it’s barely been published within the scientific community.

It was then that they and fellow GCC Stargazer Club members became acquainted with Dr. Hanno Rein, an astrophysicist employed at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, and his emerging research into so-called resonant planetary systems.

His presentation focused on how solar systems come to exist—from the billion-year process of star formation—to how almost every star has a planetary arrangement of its own. Using mathematics and computer simulations as tools, Rein narrowed his research to complex celestial configurations—resonant systems—where one planet orbits the star exactly twice as fast as another planet farther out. He also touched on the likelihood of life beyond Earth.

 “I had never heard of resonance before or searching for life-sustaining planets using the Drake Equation,” said McCormick, 23, of Sewell. “It’s a very abstract concept. You would never think that such an equation could be used in accurately determining that there is life beyond our planet.”

Finding the subject matter both complex and engrossing, McCormick and Nemeth invited Rein to give a more in-depth lecture at the College. In April, he joined students and astronomy enthusiasts to present “Formation of Multi-planetary Systems,” a discussion on the first planets discovered beyond the Solar System, resonance and the development of his Exo-planet App.

The lecture opened with the discovery of PSR 1257 + 12, detected by pulsar timing variations. Rein shared how the Kepler spacecraft discovered planets known as “Hot Jupiters,” which possess radically different orbit periods. One in particular, located in 51 Pegasi B, is only four days long.

“It’s unlike anything we knew before,” said Rein. “This planet’s year is just four days. Today’s current census includes 257 planets in 103 multi-planetary systems. Mathematical modeling is important to gain an understanding of the most important processes. On the other hand, the math can get complicated from time to time.”

Rein indicated he designed the Exo-planet App to help him catalog data used on a daily basis—most vital being each star’s unique celestial arrangement. Presently, the characteristics of found systems and galaxies vary substantially. From there he explained the Drake Equation, a concept estimating the number of life-sustaining planets in the universe. Most astronomers hypothesize that five percent can support life.

 “I didn’t know that resonant systems existed previously, or realize that it played a part in forming multi-planetary systems,” said Nemeth, 21, of Sewell. “I plan to study astrophysics at Drexel and I’ve been interested in magnetospheres and how they react to nearby stars. I grasped the concept of resonance with this second lecture and I can see how this can play a part in what I want to research.”

Nemeth aspires to work for NASA as an advisory research astrophysicist and aerospace technician. Contrarily, McCormick is a music major who enjoys astronomy.

“I’m trying to grasp the concepts of the astronomy community,” said McCormick. “What I really liked about Dr. Rein is his approach to science and lecture style. It’s not overly complicated and he takes the time to explain it to you.”

Fellow student Vanessa Dramis, 25, of Deptford agreed.

“This was very informative,” she said. “I’m trying to broaden my horizon and perception of the universe and what’s happening now in science. It’s better to have awareness of what’s going on and where we’re going as a society.”

Rein obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in England, as well as his Master of Advanced Study, Part III of the mathematical tripos. His research interests include stochastic processes, planet migration, celestial mechanics, Saturn’s rings, N-body codes and hydrodynamics.