Australian journalism’s favourite fluff-piece machine, The Bachelor, has returned. This year’s bachelor is 31 year-old astrophysicist Matt Agnew, and he has used his sexy man-brain to earn himself a place in a sexy PhD program researching planets outside of our sexy solar system.
Most articles stop there, because research is hard, science is scary, and frankly who can be bothered using big words in an article about the seventh season of an Australian reality tv adaptation. However, here at Pelican we are people of journalistic integrity. There is enough room in one human brain to contain petty Bachie drama and astrophysics knowledge. There are way too many Bachelor-related Confessions At UWA posts for us to assume reality tv viewers cannot also be academically motivated.
So, with that out of the way: What kind of astrophysics is this guy doing?
Matt is part of the Stars and Planets research group at Swinburne University’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing. The group focuses how stars and planets are formed and how they change overtime.
Matt’s research specifically focuses on habitable planets – planets that are able to support life. These planets will have an orbit that falls into a “Habitable Zone”, a range where a planet’s orbit around a star may allow for the existence of liquid water. Research into habitable planets allows us to have a greater understanding of whether the earth remains unique in the universe
Advances in astronomy have allowed us to find some planets similar in size to the earth. However, technological limitations mean that we have so far only been able to find these planets when they orbit close to their star, outside of the Habitable Zone. Finding an earth-sized planet in a habitable zone – an “exo-earth” – is not an insignificant task. For this reason a lot of research is focused on prioritising where to look.
Matt is not trying to find completely new planetary systems, instead determining if known planetary systems might be hiding earth-like planets under our capacity for easy detection. Specifically, he looks at “Jovian planet systems”, systems containing a Jupiter-like planet. Jupiter is considered to have played a role in establishing the conditions for life to exist on earth – and if it happened here, it may have happened elsewhere in the universe.
The Stars and Planets group at Swinburne uses a supercomputer, “Green II” to run simulations. This is common in astrophysics – things like planet formation and galaxy collision cannot exactly be replicated in a lab, so we use computing power to learn more about how these things may happen in the real world. Databases like the Catalog of Earth-Like Exoplanet Survey TArgets (CELESTA) and the NASA Exoplanet Archive provide information about existing planetary systems. This info can be used in simulations to test things like orbit stability and inter-planet interaction, and help narrow down the search for an exo-earth.
Without giving too much away, there are a number of Jovian systems that could theoretically contain exo-earths. More importantly, some of these might be detectable with high-tech instruments. Spectrographs like the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) and the proposed COsmic Dynamics and EXo-earth Experiment (CODEX) may have high enough resolutions to be able to physically detect an earth-like planet in a Habitable Zone, finding us a twin for our planet – and, potentially, a home for extrasolar life.
So, yes, your Bachelor for 2019 is a living, breathing, published astrophysicist, and not an actor in glasses paid off by CSIRO to get more women into the physical sciences. His research is paving the way for us to know just how unique our earth is in this universe.
If you are interested in learning more about astrophysics, check out UWA’s astrophysics resource page or Swinburne University’s Online Astronomy Encyclopaedia. If you too are a hunky and eligible astrophysicist, please contact lifestyle editor Ava Cadee at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Words by Zoe Castleden
Zoe hopes to one day love someone as much as astronomers love acronyms