Professor David Sing

Published on: 14 December 2015

In the mid 1990s a teenage David Sing decided to build a telescope to watch a comet smash into Jupiter, despite the telescope not quite being ready in time for him to witness this astronomical event once he could look at the stars and planets for himself, he was hooked. Fast-forward twenty years and Professor David Sing is the lead author on a new research paper that has detailed the atmospheres of a number of planets outside our solar system for that first time. We caught up with David to find out more about exoplanets and this ground breaking research...

What is your current research about?

I study planets outside of our solar system – exoplanets. I am particularly interested in learning working out in detail the atmospheric composition and temperature of these planets.

Tell us more about your research into hot Jupiters?

Hot Jupiters are very hot, Jupiter like planets that are very close to their hot star, this makes their atmosphere large and easy to study. Hot Jupiters are our first playground to figure out what an atmosphere is like on another planet and to test our theories.

Exoplanet research is our first chance to take a peek at the planets nature made and really look outside our own solar system and see what other planets are like. We are finding planets that are very different to those in our solar system such as hot Jupiters.

This new research solves the mystery of water on these hot Jupiters. What is the significance of discovering water on these planets?

The water itself is very important in understanding the formation of the planet. How much water is in the planet tells us something about how and where it was formed.

Through this research we have been able to rule out a class of models that thought there was very little water on these planets. Our research has stated the case that it was clouds covering a lot of the features that we are seeing and there actually is a lot of water on these planets.

The longer term implication of this work is that we do want to find water on smaller more habitable planets. If we find water on a temperate, Earth like, planet that would be an indication of favourable conditions.

You study transiting planets, can you explain why planets in transit are better to study?

A transit is where the planet passes in front of the star. During this event, some of the light will filter though the atmosphere of the planet and leave a spectral imprint that we can detect. When the planet is not transiting, the light of the star is so much brighter that you cannot easily tease out the light from the planet. But during a transit we are able to learn the size of the planet and gain a lot of atmospheric information.

You spend a lot of time studying HD 209458 b and HD 189733 b, what is so interesting about these planets?

Those were, and still are, two of the very best hot Jupiters that have been found, they are the closest and most studied. There were also the subject of a number of firsts, for example HD 209458 b was the first transiting planet found back in 2000. They were also the planets where we were first able to detect an atmosphere, measure their temperature and so on.

About five years ago the survey resulting in this research paper started, at that point we had about 10 hot Jupiters to study in detail. We needed to wait until there were a sufficient number of planets to get a broad overview of what they are like in general. With one planet you never know if you are just studying an oddball.

How is your research relevant to an average member of the public?

The question about our place in the universe is one of the biggest that science can address, and exoplanets helps put our own solar system in context. In the next few decades, we should be able to look at biomarker signatures on other planets and get an idea if there is life on them.

Personally I think one day we will one day find life on other planets. The number of planets out there is tremendous, every star on average has a planet.

Why did you come to the University of Exeter?

I have a PhD in physics from the University of Arizona. I came to Exeter six years ago as a lecturer because Exeter got into studying Exoplanets quite early and have helped led the way in Exoplanet research.

What does the future holds for exoplanet research?

We are all anticipating the launch of the James Webb telescope in late 2018. It is a very powerful telescope that will revolutionise all of astrophysics, especially exoplanets research.

From our survey with the Hubble telescope we have good spectre of about 10 planets but the James Webb will blow all of that out of the water, and also be sensitive to much smaller planets.

What excites you about working in this research environment?

The discovery. The history with exoplanets is that every time we have looked at a new planet or found something new about the atmosphere, it has been unexpected. It is that sense of discovery that is very, very exciting.

What has been the most rewarding moment of your career so far?

When I was able to put down all the exoplanets in this research for a family portrait. I could see how the planets looked – spectroscopically anyway – across all the different planetary types. Then I could start to classify and arrange them. It was very rewarding to be the first person ever to do this.

Who or what is your inspiration?

Curiosity is my biggest inspiration. When I was in high school in the United States in the mid-1990s I wanted to see the comet that was going to hit Jupiter. I lived in Montana and didn’t have any access to a telescopes, so I went to the science club and built my own telescope. I didn’t quite get it built in time, but it was a fairly decent sized telescope, so I looked at a lot of stars and planets - and I have been hooked on astronomy ever since.

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