Where did we come from? What is our place in the universe? Are we alone?
“Curiosity about the world is part of what makes us human,” says Ray Jayawardhana, who is Dean of Science at York University.
“The quest to understand who we are and where we came from starts with understanding the origins of stars and planets,” he says.
The York professor studies planets that orbit stars other than our sun. It helps Jayawardhana to understand how our own solar system came to be, and hints at the diversity of other planets. He hunts for planets using the world’s largest telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile.
“We would like to take pictures of planets directly, but the problem is planets are incredibly faint compared to the stars they orbit,” he says. “Seeing our Earth next to our sun would be like trying to see a firefly next to a bright search light.”
One of the ways Jayawardhana and his team address this problem is by using “suppresser technology” to filter out starlight. This technology and other recent advances have opened up thousands of new worlds to planet hunters.
“The last two decades have been exciting and dramatic times,” he says. “We have gone from knowing about one planetary system, to learning about thousands of others.”
As planets transit (pass in front of) their suns, “we study the starlight passing through the planets’ atmosphere,” he says. “It can help us understand the diversity of other worlds.”
Jayawardhana and his team also study brown dwarfs – free-floating objects in space that are too massive to be planets but too small to be stars.
“By characterizing these alien worlds and comparing it with our own solar system, we can learn about the early days of a planetary system,” he says.
“We are on the verge of discovering other planets like our Earth, which could be a big step forward,” says Jayawardhana. “It’s important to understand our own place in this vast cosmic context.”