Few people throughout history could make the astounding claim that they participated in the discovery of a planet, but Cindy Foote has co-discovered two.
Two new planets orbiting distant stars were confirmed by the team that includes Foote, a resident of Kanab. The planets called XO-2b and XO-3b were announced this week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Honolulu. The group of professional astronomers, scientists and others is meeting May 27 through today.
Through centuries of prehistoric nights, people identified most of our solar system's planets objects distinguished as "wandering stars" as their orbits are not fixed. With the advent of telescopes, Uranus was discovered in 1781; in 1846, Neptune joined the family. Pluto was identified in 1930, but the little sphere was stripped of full planetary status last year.
Starting about 1995, advances in optics opened a new era of planet discoveries. For the first time, scientists were able to detect worlds circling other stars. They are called exoplanets, for extra-solar planets.
By now, the number of confirmed exoplanets has reached 242, said Foote. Most were found by examining the wobble on stars exerted by the gravity of nearby planets, but 13 are credited to the transiting technique.
Transiting depends on detecting the tiny dip in a star's light when a planet happens to transit, or pass between it and Earth. The study requires a permanent observatory, many nights of measurement and good-size telescopes.
Enter Cindy Foote.
She and her husband, Jerry, own an impressive observatory in Kanab. The Vermillion Cliffs Observatory takes advantage of the lack of light pollution and clear skies of that section of southern Utah. It has two buildings one with a 16-inch diameter telescope, the other a 24-inch instrument. Cindy Foote's discovery came with the 24-inch.
Their business, ScopeCraft Inc., based in Kanab, produces custom-built, research-grade telescopes.
"You know, she started out just interested in looking at the pretty (astronomical) pictures, just looking through the telescope," said Jerry Foote. In 2004 she heard a talk by a NASA expert about a professional-amateur collaboration to discover exoplanets.
After that talk, he said, her drive to search out distant planets was unstoppable.
"Boy, when I heard that, that was it," she said. "I thought that was just the coolest thing I'd ever heard of and told Jerry that was the area of science I want to work with."
For two years, she honed her photometry the precise measurement of starlight changes aiming at stars where transiting planets had already been discovered.
At an astronomical meeting last year, she met a co-discoverer of an exoplanet, and he asked if she could give some additional details of light changes at that star. Back at Vermillion Cliffs, she collected the data and sent it along. Eventually, her efforts caught the attention of Peter McCoullough, leader of the professional-amateur project.
McCoullough, part of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, was wowed too. Soon he invited Cindy Foote to join the search, which is named the XO Project.
The team has seven professional and nine amateur astronomers worldwide.
At the Haleakala observatory in Hawaii, the team has two cameras for monitoring.
The professionals analyze the data from the robotic monitoring sessions. When one target sector, which could include several stars, seems to show patterns of dimming starlight, they pass the data to the "ET" the extended team of amateurs.
"And then it's our job," Cindy Foote said.
"What they ask us to do is to confirm the timing that they predict" for a planet to transit in front of a target star. "They want us to confirm, and in some cases they want to identify which star actually is varying in brightness."
ET members track and make readings of candidate stars.
How did she feel when she realized she saw the light curve proving that a planet was passing in front of the star?
"Oh, it was incredible," she said. "It was amazing, and something that I've been working hard for a year to make happen."
She would work hard, every night, checking on a list of about a dozen stars that might have planets. She would pick one star to study per night. The effort was a tiring one.