Dordt College News

Dordt professor receives $55,000 research grant

September 27, 2013

Boldly exploring “the final frontier,” Dordt College Professor of Chemistry and Planetary Sciences Channon Visscher has been awarded $55,685 to continue his research project titled “Collaborative Research: Characterizing Cloudy Exoplanet Atmospheres.”

The grant, awarded by the National Science Foundation, will aid Visscher and a team of astronomers from the University of California-Santa Cruz in improving our understanding of the chemistry and weather of planets outside our solar system.

"The chemistry of these atmospheres is influencing what we can actually see when we look at exoplanets,” said Visscher. “Different kinds of clouds influence their appearance.”

Visscher, a theoretical modeler, develops chemical models using a computer program that simulates cloud formation. While Earth’s clouds are made of water, clouds on other planets can be made of ammonia, iron, and other materials. “I’ll be running the chemical models to see what clouds can form, and we’ll compare the appearance of planets that we simulate in our models with the astronomical observations,” said Visscher.

Visscher’s field of research is relatively new. The first confirmed exoplanets were discovered in the early 1990s and most of what we know of them has been inferred by indirect evidence, such as tiny wobbles or dips in the light from their host stars. The new study will focus on exoplanets that can be directly imaged by large telescopes.

Visscher and his team will compare their theoretical models with telescope observations to find clues about what these planets are made of.  “We’re finding that as the number of discovered exoplanets grows, so does their incredible diversity,” said Visscher. “We’re using chemistry to try to explain what the astronomers are seeing.”

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