Dr. Sharon Montgomery, Clarion University professor of physics and interim associate provost, was a keynote speaker for “Exocomets: Understanding the Composition of Planetary Building Blocks,” an international workshop in Leiden, Netherlands.
The workshop brought together experts within the fields of exocomets, solar system comets, exoplanet atmospheres, stellar disks, and astrobiology to talk about the role that comets may play in the emergence of life throughout the universe and the directions those fields should take to better understand this role.
Montgomery's talk, "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: A Brief History of Exocomets," reviewed what we currently know about exocomets, the comets orbiting stars other than the sun. Her talk summarized the methods that astronomers use to detect faraway chunks of ice and rock as well as the pivotal role they may play in the construction of habitable worlds throughout the universe. As carriers of water and key nutrients, comets may enable rocky worlds to acquire oceans and atmospheres and help life gain a foothold on these worlds. Montgomery reviewed what we know about this process and the unresolved questions.
Montgomery and her collaborator, Dr. Barry Welsh of UC Berkeley, are among the leading researchers in the field of exocomets. Of the 25 stellar systems thought to contain comets, Montgomery and Welsh detected all but four. They detected these comets by carefully studying the light from the star, which is subtly altered when it passes through a cometary tail. Since comets are the leftovers from planet formation and carry ingredients necessary for life, the systems found to include comets are also those more likely to include habitable, watery worlds.
Montgomery and Welsh's work was highlighted in a February 2019 article in Scientific American. She holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Case Western Reserve University.
For more information about exocomets, visit www.exocomets.org.