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The University Fellowship : 2017

Ashish Kumar Mishra

Astronomy has always been my favorite subject and that interest has driven me to take
decisions so far for further studies. Joining the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the
University of Toledo is another step on the path to achieving my goal of becoming a professional
astronomer.
As part of my undergraduate research in astronomy, I learned the technique of polarimetry
to study stars especially the circumstellar envelope of cool super-giant stars. Lights from the
stars becomes polarized when it is scattered by the material around the star. By measuring the
polarization of the starlight, we can learn about both the physical properties of the scattering
material as well as how is it geometrically distributed around the star. The results of the
project were presented at the Astronomical Society of India meeting 2015 and The Astronomers
Telegram (ATel), an internet service for quickly disseminating information about events relevant
for astronomers.
For my graduate research, I want to use the polarimetry techniques that I learned in my
undergraduate research to use them as a tool to help learn about one of the big unanswered
questions in astronomy. One particular question that has intrigued human mankind for ages is
the possibility of the existence of alien life outside our solar system which requires the presence
of habitable planets. In general, direct light from a star has very little or no polarization.
However, due to the presence of planets around it, light from star gets scattered from the planets
atmosphere resulting in polarized radiation. Similar to the use of polaroid glasses to block glare
(horizontal polarized rays from surfaces), polarimeters are used to separate the polarized light
from the total light received from star, which can be further analysed to characterize the planet
and its atmosphere properties. Harnessing information from the magnitude and orientation
(polarization) of the received radiation, we can detect exoplanets and study their orbit and
the nature of the scattering particles in the planetary atmosphere. Using polarimetry as a

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method to explore planets outside our solar system is particularly valuable because it involves
direct observation of light scattered by the planetary atmosphere. Knowing the atmospheric
properties in turn tells as whether the planets environment is favorable for life.
The University of Toledo has one of the few instruments in the world that can do polaization
studies and we have both the observational and theoretical expertise. The universitys on-
campus observational facilities, especially the HPOL spectro-polarimeter operating on the 1-m
telescope at the Ritter Astrophysical Research Center, will provide me with ample opportunities
to learn the observational techniques of polarimetry. I decided to come to the University of
Toledo specifically to work with Dr. Jon E. Bjorkman who is an expert in the use of
polarimetry to study astronomical objects such as exoplanets. Working under his supervision,
I want to develop theoretical models which can be applied to interpret the future polarimetric
observations of exoplanets. This field is particularly exciting because it opens an entirely new
window to learn directly about the exoplanets. As soon as the observation technology improves
to the point of detecting the exoplanets polarization, I will be positioned at the forefront of
this new field. That promises to answer whether life exists on planets outside our solar system.
The university fellowship will provide me valuable support to fully pursue my research goals.