The possibility that our own galaxy contains Earth-like planets that may be able to support life has gone from science fiction to a very distinct possibility! Bishop’s University is proud to welcome Dr. Jason Rowe, a researcher who will play a key role in this type of discovery, to its Department of Physics and Astronomy. Bishop’s University has also announced the appointment of Dr. Jason Rowe as Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Exoplanet Astrophysics, an honour that comes with an award of $100,000 annually for a period of five years, on Monday, December 4th 2017 at 9:00 a.m. at Alexander Galt Regional High School. Miles Turnbull, Vice-Principal Academic, responsible for Research, states that “Dr. Rowe’s expertise and experience are outstanding and his research program is intriguing and timely. The more we learn from exoplanet research, the more we understand how our solar system fits into the rest of the galaxy and the universe. It is so exciting that this kind of work will develop at Bishop’s. As Canada Research Chair in Exoplanet Astrophysics, Dr. Rowe will work with researchers from around the world. His research will also draw attention to our University.”
Ms. Jacqueline Belleau, Constituency Assistant for the Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, presented Dr. Rowe with a congratulatory letter signed by Prime Minister Trudeau following this important nomination. Alexander Galt High School Science students will have the opportunity to learn more, during this event, about Dr. Rowe’s background and prior research experience with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, and to gain a better understanding of how exoplanets that may have the necessary characteristics to support life can be identified.
In addition to the funding provided by the Canada Research Chairs program, $148,979 of additional funds were awarded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Ministère de l’Éducation, de la Science et de l’Innovation and private partners for the creation of a laboratory at Bishop’s University. This infrastructure will allow Dr. Rowe to further understand “what makes a planet Earth-like”, building upon research that he and members of a research team led by Harvard University researcher Guillermo Torres have recently published in The Astronomical Journal. In this important publication, they announce that they have identified 7 new small, “habitable zone” planets in the Milky Way.
In order to understand the concept of a Habitable Zone, it is useful to imagine a campfire: when one sits too close to the campfire, the air is unbearably hot; too far from the campfire, however, the individual cannot benefit from its warmth. The “sweet spot,” the area around the campfire where one is comfortable, represents what researchers call the Habitable Zone: the ideal distance of a planet from its host star to make life sustainable. Every star has a Habitable Zone, but only certain stars have a planet within that zone. This concept is used to find potentially interesting planets and to posit the following questions: can these planets sustain an atmosphere like the one found on Earth? Is there water and oxygen on their surface? According to Dr. Lorne Nelson, Chair of the Physics and Astronomy Department, “the research being conducted by Dr. Rowe and his colleagues will be a tremendous boon for future space-based telescopes whose goal it will be to analyze the atmospheric properties of habitable exoplanets and determine if the existence of some form of life on their surfaces is plausible. The long-term prospects are incredibly exciting!”
As a new chairholder, Dr. Rowe will work to find and characterize potentially interesting planets transiting in front of their host stars among millions of stars. In so doing, he will help to bring the scientific community one step closer to answering a question that has haunted humanity for decades: “Are we alone in the universe?” According to Dr. Rowe, “the study of extrasolar planets allows us to potentially answer this question. We know of at least one planet in the Universe that can support life: The Earth. The Earth has an atmosphere that has been altered through its history by physical and biological processes, and the Earth is located at just the right distance from our Sun for molecules such as water to exist in solid, liquid and gas states. In our study of extrasolar planets, we will learn if such conditions are unique to the Earth or if they are found elsewhere. This is the study of planet habitability, which will teach us the properties that make a planet Earth-like and enable us to identify potential signs of biology and life. We may be the first generation of humans to determine if life exists outside our Solar System. Support from the Canada Research Chairs Program is directly enabling these types of studies.”