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Forging into the Final Frontier

College of Science student studies planets from faraway solar systems to understand their formation

UPDATE 4/29/19: The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program awarded Samuel Myers a 2019 Goldwater Scholarship, which is based on academic merit. For the 2019 Goldwater competition, 443 institutions nominated 1,223 outstanding undergraduates, and scholarships were awarded to 496 students. The one- and two-year scholarships cover the cost of tuition, fees, books and room and board, up to $7,500 per year.

The University of Idaho hadn’t pinged Samuel Myers’ radar when he was applying to colleges until the National Merit Scholar from Mukilteo, Washington, received a piece of mail from the university.

“It was like, ‘Hey, we know you’re a National Merit Scholar, and we offer a full-ride scholarship, so come check us out,’” Myers said. “The most important thing I was looking for in an undergraduate institution was the ability to participate in undergraduate research. When I saw that this university had plenty of opportunities for that and professors who were willing to start working with people right away, it really sealed the deal for me.”

Now, the 20-year-old junior is studying mathematics and physics and working on a project with Jason Barnes, an associate professor in the Department of Physics. The study investigates the formation and evolution of planets by studying exoplanets, planets in other planetary systems — not our solar system.

"Understanding how planets form tells us a lot about where we might expect to find planets that are habitable and what goes into making a habitable planet." Samuel Myers, mathematics and physics undergraduate

Myers uses data from NASA’s space telescope Kepler, which for several years recorded stars’ light curves — stars’ brightness over time. A star’s brightness appears to change when an exoplanet passes in front of the star, blocking part of the star’s light from reaching Kepler.

By studying this brightness pattern, Myers can measure an exoplanet’s spin-orbit misalignment — if an exoplanet revolves around its star on a different plane than the star rotates. An exoplanet’s spin-orbit misalignment tells Myers something about that exoplanet’s orbit.

In addition, using technology developed by Barnes and a former U of I graduate student, Myers and his colleagues are able to analyze gravity-darkened stars. These stars rotate so rapidly, they start to flatten, resulting in varying brightness across latitudes that make it more difficult to examine them. But Myers said their equipment processes the data in a way that makes it usable, creating an independent measurement.

So far, Myers said they have completely measured the spin-orbit misalignment of one planetary system. After looking at several more planetary systems, they hope to gain insight into how planets form and clarify theories about planetary formation.

“We may be able to say, ‘OK, well, Theory A isn’t happening, but Theory B is happening all the time. And we are watching that play out in the universe,’ which is really cool,” Myers said. “Understanding how planets form tells us a lot about where we might expect to find planets that are habitable and what goes into making a habitable planet. We’ve been making actual scientific process, and it’s just amazing.”

In October 2019, Myers, who received the College of Science’s Hill Undergraduate Research Fellowship for his project, plans to present his findings at the annual meeting of the Division of Planetary Sciences in Geneva, Switzerland. After graduating in spring 2020, Myers hopes to continue his educational endeavors with planetary science and eventually become a professor.

Samuel Myers sits at his desk working on a computer.
Samuel Myers works at his desk.

Article and photos by Olivia Heersink, a senior from Fruitland and is majoring in journalism with a minor in justice studies.

Published in March 2019.

This project was funded under the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astrophysics Data Analysis Program award No. NNX14AI67G. The total project funding is $271,571, of which 100 percent is the federal share.


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