Exploring other worlds

By Joanna Barstow (@DrJoVian), University of Oxford 


I am very excited to be taking part in Soapbox Science 2015. Science and performing arts are two of my passions, and so the opportunity to speak about science in public is a wonderful combination of the two.

comet_demoI decided I wanted to become a planetary scientist when I was sixteen, having spent most of my summer holiday working with members of the Beagle 2 Mars Lander team at the University of Leicester. I had a wonderful time thinking about ways to use the group’s instrument to look for evidence of life on Mars, and left wishing I could fast-forward my life through the rest of my A-levels so I could start doing real science. Beagle 2’s unfortunate demise didn’t deter me, so twelve years later here I am – a planetary scientist at the University of Oxford.

A planetary scientist is simply a scientist that studies planets (generally the term is used for scientists who look at planets other than the Earth). My research focus is the atmospheres of other planets – the shells of gas that surround the rocky parts of planets like Earth and Venus, and the outer layers of gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Atmospheres are really important as they play a big role in controlling the surface conditions on planets like the Earth – for example, climate change is a result of humans very slightly altering the composition of our atmosphere. Atmospheres can also act as a record of a planet’s history, or an indicator of current conditions.

Until recently, the solar system was the only field of study for a planetary scientist, but over the last 20 years almost 2000 planets have been discovered orbiting other stars. We call these exoplanets, and many of them have very different conditions to the planets in our solar system – some reaching temperatures of well over 1000 oC, with clouds made of silicate glass and metallic gases in their atmospheres. The only way to find out information about many of these planets is to wait for them to pass in front of their stars as viewed from the Earth; then, some of the starlight passes through their atmospheres on its way to us and we can use that light to work out what they are like. The signals we are interested in are tiny, one part in a million to one part in ten thousand, so we use powerful telescopes like the Very Large Telescope in Chile and the Hubble Space Telescope.

16689461726_a23f33790f_o When I’m not doing research, I spend a lot of time giving talks to schools or helping out with open days at the University. I especially enjoy making ‘comets’ out of water and dry ice – incidentally, comets also look very good on a dress! For non-science relaxation I enjoy reading fiction and performing in amateur musical theatre productions – currently this involves dressing up as a nun in a local production of Sister Act!



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