We asked iREx’s young astronomers: What are you working on these days?

Some of our young researchers at work. Credit: Filter by Canva.
Some of our young researchers at work. Credit: Filter by Canva.

To introduce you to our young researchers, we conducted a series of flash interviews throughout the 2022-2023 academic year, to which all our master’s and doctoral students and researchers were invited to respond. In recent months, we’ve been posting portraits on Facebook under the keyword #iRExFlashInterviews

In this second article in a series of four, we compile the various responses received from these up-and-coming young scientists to the question:

What are you working on these days?

From right to left, top to bottom: Alexandrine L’Heureux, André Beaudoin, Anne Boucher, Ariane Deslières, Caroline Piaulet, Charles Cadieux, Charles-Édouard Boukaré, Chris Mann, Clémence Fontanive, Dereck Lizotte, Dominic Couture, Érika Le Bourdais, Etienne Artigau, Frédéric Genest, Giang Nguyen, Jared Splinter, Jonathan St-Antoine, Katherine Thibault, Keavin Moore, Kim Morel, Leslie Moranta, Lisa Dang, Loïc Albert, Marylou Fournier Tondreau, Michael Matesic, Neil Cook, Olivia Lim, Pierre-Alexis Roy, Romain Allart, Simon Delisle, Thomas Vandal and Vigneshwaran Krishnamurthy.

Alexandrine: I primarily work on the planetary system of the small star TRAPPIST-1, which includes 7 terrestrial-sized planets. I use data from the SPIRou instrument to measure the mass of the planets and also from the NIRISS instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope to characterize the star’s activity during the planets’ transits in front of it.

André: I’m working on the concept of a telescope that will be built in the next ten years; the European Extremely Large Telescope. This telescope will have a 39-meter diameter mirror, making it the largest ever constructed. I’m specifically working on evaluating the performance of an instrument, ANDES, which will serve (among other things) to characterize exoplanet atmospheres, and perhaps even find oxygen, which would be a world-first!

Ariane: I’ve just finished my master’s thesis. Currently, I’m working on publishing a scientific article presenting the results of my research. It targets the GL229 system, which is quite famous! This system contains the first confirmed brown dwarf, GL229 B, an object too massive to be considered a planet but not quite a star. I’m demonstrating that GL229 A b and GL229 A c, planets purportedly detected around the star GL229 A, do not exist!

Caroline: I’m primarily working on two projects at the moment. The first one involves determining, among the planets we currently know, which would be good candidates for being largely composed of water (referred to as “water worlds” in English). To test this hypothesis, I recreate exoplanets on my computer and then try to identify which ones have an atmosphere in which we could detect water signatures using the James Webb Space Telescope.

My second project involves analyzing data from the same telescope received a few months ago, searching for atmospheres around potentially habitable rocky planets around the star TRAPPIST-1!

Charles: I’m currently focused on studying planetary systems that include at least one small exoplanet in the habitable zone, which is the region around a star where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for a planet similar to Earth to maintain liquid water on its surface. Among other things, I’m trying to measure the mass and radius of such exoplanets as accurately as possible to better understand their composition.

Charles-Édouard: I’m studying the internal dynamics of lava exoplanets. These are rocky planets that are so close to their stars that their surfaces are in a molten state. My main tools are theory and numerical simulations of fluid dynamics. My goal is to better understand the interactions between the surface and the interior of lava planets in order to better predict present and future observations.

Chris: I study exoplanets with instruments that were not originally designed for that purpose. One of them is a robotic telescope located in New Mexico that was built to study dim galaxies, and the other is a small Canadian satellite intended to monitor near-Earth objects (asteroids and comets that pass close to Earth). I manage to use both instruments to detect the faint signals of exoplanets!

Clémence: I work on brown dwarfs, objects of intermediate mass between planets and stars. Currently, I’m interested in the coldest known brown dwarfs, called Y dwarfs. I measure their distances using the Hubble Space Telescope in order to better understand their atmospheres, which are very similar to those of giant planets like Jupiter.

Dominic: My research focuses on young stellar associations in the solar neighborhood, groups of stars that formed at the same time and in the same place relatively recently. I use data from the Gaia mission to study their dynamics, determine their ages, and even discover new associations. The stars in young associations are prime targets for exoplanet research and study using the James Webb Space Telescope!

Érika: I work on characterizing and modeling exoplanetary disks that orbit white dwarf stars. The different chemical elements they contain provide us with a lot of information about the interiors of exoplanets, asteroids, and moons.

Étienne: I mainly work on NIRPS, an instrument installed on a telescope in Chile that is used to search for exoplanets using the radial velocity method. Our team has been granted 720 nights of observation spread over the next 5 years, which is huge! We confirmed that the instrument works properly during the past year and started our scientific program on April 1st (no jokes!) last year.

Frédéric G.: I’m working on characterizing exoplanet atmospheres using data from the SPIRou and soon-to-be NIRPS instruments. I’m trying to detect molecules like water vapor and carbon monoxide, among others. I also hope to study phenomena like the presence of winds and day/night and morning/evening differences.

Giang: I study the climate of lava planets. These planets experience extreme weather conditions where winds can reach supersonic speeds and it even rains rocks!

Jonathan S.-A.: I work on most of the instruments we develop at the Experimental Astrophysics Laboratory at the Mont-Mégantic Observatory, such as the SPIRou and NIRPS spectrographs. Our instruments are then used by members of iREx and the international community to observe exoplanets. My work’s goal is to ensure that the instruments developed in the lab are efficient and high-performing in order to obtain high-precision measurements during observations.

Katherine: The project I’m working on involves observing white dwarf stars to determine if they are alone or if exoplanets orbit them! To do this, I use an imaging technique and observations made with the MIRI instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope.

Keavin: I’m working on predicting surface water inventories – as an indicator of habitability – for Earth-like planets that orbit red dwarf stars. I use a model that simulates magma oceans, atmospheric gas loss, and deep-water cycling.

Kim: I work on characterizing exoplanet atmospheres using data collected by the NIRISS instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope. Specifically, I will analyze the composition of the atmosphere of the exoplanet WASP-80b, which is a gas giant.

Leslie: I study stellar clusters in the immediate vicinity of the Sun, which are environments conducive to the discovery of exoplanets. I first analyze the motion of stars using Gaia mission data to find new stellar clusters, and then I determine their age by analyzing the rotation period of the stars and other objects in these clusters using data from the TESS space telescope.

Loïc: One of the projects keeping me busy these days involves searching for companions in orbit around the 22 coldest and nearest known brown dwarfs using the new Webb Telescope. This project aims to measure the fraction of these brown dwarfs that form in binary systems (systems with two brown dwarfs). Ultimately, we’d like to measure their mass, as we believe they are the smallest objects formed through a process similar to star formation.

Marylou: I’m analyzing a transit spectrum of the exoplanet HAT-P-18 b obtained with the NIRISS instrument on the James Webb Space Telescope to study its atmosphere. This planet has the mass of Saturn but is much more inflated and hotter.

Neil: I spend most of my time writing code using the Python programming language. Currently, I’m working on software designed to use data collected by telescopes (such as those in Hawaii and Chile). This software enables us to find and study exoplanets, stars, and much more!

Olivia: My team and I have been receiving data from the TRAPPIST-1 system obtained from the James Webb Space Telescope since the summer of 2022. We’re trying to determine whether the terrestrial-sized rocky planets in this system have an atmosphere. We’re eagerly looking forward to sharing our results with everyone!

Romain: I dedicate a significant portion of my time to the NIRPS project, which is one of the major projects at iREx. It’s a spectrograph that analyzes light in the near-infrared. It breaks down light into millions of colors! Installed in Chile, its goal is to detect exoplanets and characterize their atmospheres. I’m focusing on the latter aspect. Over the next five years, we’ll be able to study the atmospheres of around a hundred exoplanets!

Simon D.: I work on characterizing exoplanet atmospheres. I’m particularly interested in very hot planets that are tidally locked to their stars (meaning they always show the same face). Their atmospheres are very different between the day side (facing the star) and the night side (facing away from the star). I analyze their atmospheres during planetary transits (when the planet passes in front of the star) using tools I’ve developed myself.

Thomas: I work on the search and characterization of giant exoplanets (often more massive than Jupiter) and brown dwarfs. I use direct imaging with the James Webb Space Telescope and high-resolution spectroscopy with instruments like SPIRou and NIRPS.

Vigneshwaran: I spend my time probing the atmospheres of rocky planets, hoping to find one with a terrestrial atmosphere.


To read our astronomers’ answers to other questions, see the other articles in the series: