Out-of-this-world prof receives funding for research of exoplanets and more

Mallory Nilles — Staff Writer

Some students know him as the professor who makes dad jokes so specific to his field that few actually understand, while others know him as the stars and space nerd. Colleagues recognize him as a highly respected model scholar, a “decent-at-best” racquetball player, a man with “eclectic-but-great” music taste, and one whose fashion never skips a beat.

Channon Visscher, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Planetary Sciences, is all these things and more.

He graduated from Dordt College in 2000 with a chemistry major and received his master’s degree and doctorate in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in 2002 and 2006, when he wrote his first scientific paper on exoplanets.

Now, Visscher has spent over a decade working alongside a research group from the University of California Santa Cruz, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the University of Arizona. Recently, he was asked to join them again — this time for a project titled “Precision Tests of the Physics of Mixing in Cool Planetary and Brown Dwarf Atmospheres.”

Visscher’s role in the project was determining the chemical makeup of the subterranean atmosphere based on what is known about the external atmosphere of the exoplanet.

“You can’t do this science with just one tool,” Visscher said. “You really do need to look at these things from multiple angles and multiple disciplines to figure out what’s going on.”

In spring of 2022, the Space and Science Institute gave Visscher’s team a research grant for $44,201. The money will be used to cover the costs of computing equipment and pay the research team for their time and effort over a two-year period.

Visscher said “discovering new worlds and figuring out what they look like” is the part of his field that most excites him.

“What do other planets look like? What are they like? We’re discovering new worlds all the time,” Visscher said. “Just a few years ago we didn’t even know [these worlds] existed. It’s a whole new frontier of something new.”

Exoplanets are planets that orbit a star outside the solar system, and brown dwarves are celestial objects that are halfway between being a star or an exoplanet. Visscher and the rest of the team are using observations collected by the newly released James Webb Space Telescope to analyze its data and develop theories of the chemical makeup of these exoplanets.

The process involves using observations to create spectral models, then creating chemical models that display the chemical makeup of these exoplanets.

The research is complicated, and Visscher expects some challenges along the way.

“Creation itself pushes back and throws us curveballs sometimes,” Visscher said. “Things we didn’t expect—which is great—but changes the way we expected the project to go. We just have to figure out what’s actually happening.”

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