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The Surprising Extremes of the Growing Extrasolar Planet Population

Dr. Wade G. Henning, Department of Astronomy, University of Maryland at College Park
When Aug 22, 2013
from 10:30 AM to 12:00 PM
Where USNO Building 56 Large Conference Room
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Time:  10:30 (coffee/cookies);  Talk 11:00-12:00


In the past decade the number of known planets outside our solar system has rapidly expanded and will continue to rapidly grow in the years ahead.  Among the observed planets are a number of objects completely unique from the familiar examples within our own solar system.  Observation methods strongly favor the detection of planets with very short orbital periods and, therefore, a large fraction of the current catalog consists of exotic worlds with very high surface temperatures.  Many exoplanets also, surprisingly, exhibit very high orbital eccentricities and inclinations, unlike the nearly coplanar circular orbits of our own clockwork solar system.  Such high eccentricities favor the production of incredible amounts of tidal heating, which in some cases may be sufficient energy to inflate Jupiter-class planets up to higher radii, to melt the high pressure ice mantles of Neptune-class worlds, or to convert the upper layers of Earth-sized worlds into magma oceans.  At the same time, the tidal spin-locking mechanism that makes one face of our own Moon point perpetually to the Earth has already been observed to lock one superheated face of exoplanets to their host stars, with supersonic winds blowing from dayside to nightside.  At the other extreme of activity, the chaotic orbital environments within early extrasolar systems has the potential to eject large numbers of planets in all size classes into interstellar trajectories, generating a nearly impossible to observe population of nomad planets unbound to any star.

Brief Bio: 

Dr. Henning received a Bachelor’s Degree from Carnegie Mellon University in Mechanical Engineering in 1998, working on path planning for mobile robotics.  In 2000 he received a Master’s Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University while working on the design and production of small satellites.  For four years he then worked in the aerospace industry on a variety of flight projects including Earth observing satellites, the Air Force Airborne Laser program, and the Taurus medium class launch vehicle.  Dr. Henning returned to graduate school at Harvard University in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences  where his Ph. D thesis examined the extreme limits of tidal heating in extrasolar planetary systems.  His current work as a postdoctoral fellow at the UMD College Park and the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is focused on issues of internal heat flow for a range of silicate and icy bodies within our solar system and beyond.


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