Study by Redfield, Johnson ’11 Published in Astrophysical Journal, New Scientist

Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, and Marshall Johnson ’11 are the co-authors of an article titled “The Interstellar Medium in the Kepler Search Volume,” published in The Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 802, No. 2, July 2015. The article highlights ways scientists are studying the gas and dust in the galaxy near where the Kepler Space Telescope is discovering exoplanets.

“Stars, with planets, can interact with the gas surrounding them in interesting ways, like bubbles in a drink, where each of the bubbles is an individual star (perhaps with planets) and the drink is the ‘interstellar medium’, the gas in between the stars,” Redfield explained.

In addition, The New Scientist published an article on Aug. 6 titled, “Distant worlds could be sheltering in a bubble around their star,” which focuses on the authors’ Astrophysical Journal study. It reads:

Distant planets may be swaddled in a protective bubble of magnetism and charged particles, courtesy of their parent star. The first study to scrutinize these so-called astrospheres shows that some exoplanets are more well shielded than Earth, others not so lucky – and that their protection can be fickle.

Within our solar system, the sun’s wind of charged particles and radiation forms a bubble called the heliosphere, which repels cosmic rays that can affect Earth’s weather, eat away at the ozone layer and damage DNA. Likewise, astrospheres guard faraway worlds from the ravages of the cosmos, says Marshall C. Johnson, an astronomer at the University of Texas in Austin.

An astrosphere’s size is determined partly by the strength of the star’s winds, and partly by the surrounding interstellar medium of gas and dust. The star’s velocity through the galaxy also has an effect.

“It’s just like if you are driving and you stick your hand out the window. You will experience higher pressure on your hand when you are driving fast than when you are driving slowly,” Johnson says. “If there is a greater relative velocity between the star and the interstellar medium, there will be a greater pressure exerted on the astrosphere.”

Johnson is working on his PhD in astronomy at the University of Texas in Austin. Marshall and Redfield had gone together in 2010-11 to observe at the McDonald Observatory in west Texas, and this project grew out of this work.

Another co-author on the paper, Adam Jensen, was a postdoctoral researcher at Wesleyan between 2010-2013 and was funded by the National Science Foundation.