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International Scholar Feature: Exploring the unknown in exoplanetary research

Feb 27, 2024

This article is part of a series spotlighting distinguished international scholars at IU supported by the Office of International Services at IU Bloomington and Office of International Affairs at IUPUI within IU Global.

When you ask assistant professor Songhu Wang why he joined the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Astronomy in 2020, his answer is simple.

“The fascination with space is an inherent aspect of human nature,” he said. “The exploration of our cosmic place and contemplation of Earth’s uniqueness are quintessentially human concerns.”

Songhu Wang. Photo by Drew Bird Songhu Wang. Photo by Drew Bird

Wang immerses himself in the study of exoplanets — planets orbiting stars beyond our own — opening a window to the vast diversity of planetary systems in the universe. This research not only challenges preconceptions but also reignites the age-old question that has fascinated humanity for centuries: Are we alone?

Wang arrived in Bloomington after obtaining his Ph.D. in China and completing a 51 Pegasi b Postdoctoral Fellow at Yale. He found himself drawn to IU’s commitment to cultivating a robust exoplanet research group. Beyond the academic considerations, IU’s stellar facilities for astronomical research, including access to data from the NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler spectroscopy, and Bloomington’s vibrant culture played a pivotal role in shaping his decision.

His research on exoplanets explores the broader cosmic context beyond the confines of our solar system. He’s not only deciphering the intricate details of exoplanets, but he is also delving into a more philosophical and conceptual understanding. He studies the “cosmic narrative,” the broader story or context within which our solar system and its planets fits into the vast expanse of the universe.

“It’s the grand questions and the inherent excitement of contributing to the cosmic narrative that fuel my dedication to this field,” Wang said.

Currently unraveling the mysteries of Jupiter’s formation and scrutinizing the peculiarities of other host star systems, Wang said he remains captivated by the unexpected revelations in his research.

“Jupiter’s formidable size poses a perplexing puzzle — too massive for solid matter formation and too gaseous to originate near the sun,” he said.

Investigating the intricacies of Jupiter provides valuable insights into the formation processes of large gas giants, which dominate the population of planets discovered light-years beyond our solar system. Moreover, certain “hot Jupiters” — massive gas giants orbiting close to their host stars — have planetary companions: more exoplanets nearby, orbiting the same host star. It’s a revelation that challenges previous assumptions, suggesting a less volatile formation process than previously thought.

Collaborations within IU and other top-tier research universities play a pivotal role in Wang’s research methodology, exemplified by his co-investigation with Malena Rice, assistant professor in the Yale Department of Astronomy, for the project “3D Geometries of Exoplanetary Systems: Mapping Eccentricity, Obliquity and the Inner-Outer Planet Relation,” which is funded by a grant from NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration program.

Wang said that collaborating with Rice broadens his research because of her distinct viewpoint from having grown up in the U.S. The global knowledge exchange underscores the significance of collaboration in advancing the understanding of cosmic phenomena, and by extension, our place in the universe. Wang, along with Rice and Anhui Normal University researcher Dong-Hong Wu, has delved deep into the mysteries of hot Jupiters through their pioneering Hot Jupiter Isolation Program. Their analysis of four years of NASA’s Kepler mission data challenges what we thought we knew about these massive planets.

“There’s a profound satisfaction in uncovering answers to previously unanswered questions — a gratifying aspect of our research journey,” he said.

This is a journey that he does not undertake alone, and one that allows for opportunities to mentor upcoming researchers as Wang continues to expand the field. In addition to his own research, one of his graduate researchers, Armaan Goyal, was named a NASA ExoExplorer last year, recognizing the importance that Indiana University brings globally.

“IU as an institution is not only highly supportive but remarkably ambitious,” Wang said. “It’s fostering an environment where innovative research and academic excellence thrive.”


IU Global

Lexi Baker

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