Frédérique Baron is an Instrumentation Project Manager at the Laboratoire d’astrophysique expérimentale (LAE) of the Observatoire du Mont-Mégantic (OMM). She is also currently the Coordinator of the Centre for Research in Astrophysics of Quebec (CRAQ). She was previously a Scientific Mediator at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets in 2020-2021, as well as the Interim EPO Coordinator in 2018-2020.
She did her PhD at the Université de Montréal under the supervision of David Lafrenière and Étienne Artigau, and she specializes in the research of giant gas planets on wide separations using the direct imaging method.
Frédérique’s PhD project (2014-2019) was to use direct imaging to detect exoplanet companions in very large orbits around the 180 youngest stars in the solar neighbourhood. She was looking for exoplanets with a mass of 1 to 10 times that of Jupiter and a semi-major axis of 100 to 5000 astronomical units (AU), orbiting stars less than 100 million years old.
The study allowed to determine the prevalence of companion planets with very wide separation around young stars, and to determine their mass and separation distributions, and thereby constrain their formation process. Most known exoplanets have been found with the radial velocity or transit methods, used to detect planets much closer to their stars, i.e. less than 5 AU and 1 AU, respectively. The direct imaging technique enable to find more distant planets. The exoplanets orbiting these young stars have just formed and still have a great deal of thermal energy resulting from their gravitational contraction. Once their formation is complete, giant planets cool rapidly and become progressively fainter.
For her PhD project, high-contrast imaging techniques to eliminate the glare from the host star will not be required. On the other hand, since the planets sought have a mass as small as Jupiter, it is essential to have highly sensitive instruments for detecting objects with low luminosity. The stars in the sample were observed using the Canada-France-Hawaii Teslecope, an observatory at the top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the Gemini-South telescope, an observatory at Cerro Pachón in Chile, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. This survey was then included in a meta-analysis of other direct imaging surveys with the goal to put constraint on the distribution of giant planets on wide orbits. The meta-study showed that the frequency of giant planets on wide orbits is low. This low frequency could be a clue, telling us that these companions may have formed in the same manner as brown dwarfs, by fragmentation of the molecular clouds, instead of like giant planets, formed in a protoplanetary disk.
For her Master (2012-2014), Frédérique sought and characterized wide-separation binary systems with one late component (Recherche et caractérisation de systèmes binaires à grande séparation dont une des composantes est tardive). The idea was to study 29 candidate pairs of stars and to determine whether each pair forms a binary system. Characterizing these binary systems tells us more about their formation and that of stars in general. These systems, consisting of low-mass stars very distant from one another, have very weak gravitational bonds. They are also very interesting if the host star is a brown dwarf, since we know little about how they are formed.
Many low-mass and brown dwarf stars are formed through violent processes that should, in theory, separate pairs of stars with weak gravitational bonds. Studying this kind of system thus helps set limit conditions for binary systems that can form efficiently, so as to eventually develop a complete theory of star formation. In addition, clearly characterizing the primary star in these systems makes it possible to estimate their age, a task that is quite difficult by other means.
Fourteen new binary systems with separation of over 250 AU and with one of the components being a late-M or L-type dwarf were found thanks to this research. The presence of systems consisting of an M-type dwarf and a substellar companion separated by more than 250 AU among the candidates is very interesting, since very few systems of this kind have been discovered to date.