Image Credit: NASA, Svend Buhl

Image Credit: NASA, Svend Buhl


General Research Interests:

  • Exoplanets and their atmospheres

  • Cosmochemistry & meteoritics

  • Intersection between theoretical & observational astronomy

  • Astrobiology and life beyond Earth

  • Brown dwarfs

Super-Earth Exoplanet Atmospheres via Experiments & Models

UC Santa Cruz (2017-Today)

  • My current research project aims to understand super-Earth exoplanet atmospheres using both experiments and models. At present, there is no first-principles understanding of the link between a planet’s bulk composition and it’s atmospheric properties. Low-mass planets including some portion of super-Earth (planets with radii in between that of Earth and Neptune) exoplanets discovered to date, form their atmospheres via outgassing during accretion (i.e., secondary atmospheres). Therefore, a logical first step to building such a theory for super-Earths is to assay meteorites, the leftover building blocks of planets, by heating them to measure the outgassed volatiles. Our Solar System presents a wide variety of meteorite types, including chondrites which are primitive unaltered rocks believed to be representative of the material that formed the rocky planets. For the experimental side of my project, I take samples of chondrites and heat them to analyze what volatiles are outgassed and at what temperatures. These experimentally-determined outgassed volatile abundances from various chondritic meteorite samples will inform the initial boundary conditions that we set in super-Earth atmosphere modeling codes. (Thomspon et al. 2019 b, in prep.)

  • For the modeling aspect of my project, I aim to modify an existing code to create a flexible exoplanet atmosphere modeling tool with a focus on super-Earths, and to use this tool to aid in identifying the best targets from NASA’s TESS and ongoing ground-based surveys for follow-up observations with future large-aperture telescopes such as TMT, GMT and E-ELT. Simulating the pressure-temperature structure and visible and thermal spectra of a planet's atmosphere, I have used the current state of the code to determine, of the currently confirmed exoplanets, which ones may be prime targets for observations on the upcoming Extremely Large Telescopes, especially the Planetary Systems Imager (PSI) planned for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), in particular with J-band (1.25 microns) reflected light and thermal infrared. Using the modeling tool to create a suite of model super-Earth-like planets composed of various elemental abundances at varying distances from a variety of host star spectral types, I am continuing to analyze which of these model planets will be detectable with ELTs. Ultimately, the experimentally-determined volatile abundances from my meteorite outgassing experiments will be incorporated into the compositions set in the atmosphere modeling code. (Thompson et al. 2019 c, stay tuned!)

Carnegie Institution for Science (DTM) Research (2016-2017 Academic Year)

  • 9-month Astronomy Research Trainee position under the mentorship of Dr. Alycia Weinberger. I analyzed data of an unusually warm, dusty debris disk around a binary star system (BD +20 307) from the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) and comparing this epoch of data to two earlier epochs taken with Spitzer and Keck/Gemini to see if we can understand the evolution of this system's dust (Thompson et al. 2019 a).

  • While at DTM, I also worked with Drs. Alan Boss and Serge Dieterich conducting analysis for the Carnegie Astrometric Planet Search program which aims to astrometrically detect exoplanets and brown dwarf companions using data from the CAPSCam camera on the 2.5-meter du Pont Telescope at the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and combining data from CAPSCam with that from the recent Gaia satellite data release. (Dieterich et al. 2018)

Undergraduate Senior Thesis Research (2015-2016 Academic Year)

  • 8-month Senior Thesis research project under the mentorship of Professor David Spergel. Developed an original approximate model to aid in the astrometric detection and characterization of multiple exoplanet systems. Wrote Python code to model stellar motion in over 50 hypothetical two- and three-exoplanet systems and incorporated a least-squares fit program to assess its efficiency in planet characterization.