Olha Zakhozhai

Candidate of physical and mathematical sciences, works at the Main Astronomical Observatory of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and cooperates with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (Germany). She studies exoplanets — planets outside the solar system.

"There is no other planet where we could fly to and build a life": exoplanet research, scientific potential and the project after the victory

A story by astrophysicist Olga Zahozhai

About the decision to become an astrophysicist

In my family, we have always held respect and admiration for scientists. My mother is a chemist (she was working on her thesis when I was born), and my father is an astronomer. When I was born, my mother postponed the presentation of her thesis. Maybe, that’s why she always supported me on this path.

My dad inspired me with his love for astronomy. I always saw astronomers as people who, as kids, were fascinated by the sky, had their telescopes, and went to various clubs. And I didn’t even need to go anywhere to hear about the stars. In addition to my father, my parents’ friends were also into astronomy, so the profession of an astronomer was as familiar to me as the profession of a teacher, doctor or trolleybus driver.

I studied at the Karazin Kharkiv National University, where my grandfather and parents also studied and later worked. I love this institution — I remember how I felt incredible excitement every time I was in front of the university. I hesitated a little before entering the Faculty of Physics because I always liked history and literature. But my parents convinced me to go for physics because with such a speciality, you can do anything you want. This is fundamental training that opens up a lot of possibilities.

During my studies, I did not think I would eventually become a scientist – I just planned to finish my dissertation. Several things influenced the decision to go into research.

First of all, participation in various conferences — I really liked going to another city and meeting students who love astronomy.

At the same time, I started submitting applications for various international programmes. In the fifth year, I received two grants to study: at the international school of astrophysics in Croatia and at the Vatican Observatory School, which took place mainly in the summer residence of the Pope. It was an enormous motivation for me because scientists of the international level spoke there, including the 2019 Nobel laureate in physics.

About the search for planets outside the solar system and the first results of observational programmes

I work at the Main Astronomical Observatory of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. I have also collaborated with scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany for many years.

Now I have two areas of research. The first one is observing young stars and signs that planets are forming around them. The second is an extensive observational programme to search for exoplanets (planets outside the solar system).

With a Spanish scientific team, we are exploring the rings of planets near stars and looking for signs of satellite formation around them. At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, where I am now, we are conducting a vast search program for exoplanets, which started back in 2017.

We chose 111 young stars around which we search for planets using the radial velocity method — that is, we study the spectrum from the star and the shift of this spectrum to the red or blue sides. The idea is that we look at these displacements and how they behave over time, and from that data, we can guess whether there is a planet or a brown dwarf around that star.

My project is complementary to another project that uses imaging methods to search for planets outside the solar system. In fact, each of the methods has its advantages and limitations.

We have already received some observations and have preliminary results. At the moment, thanks to these two extensive search programmes — the radial velocity method and the image method – we only have one planet, just from my project, but a fascinating one. We already know its radius and mass, and observations now confirm these parameters. This is very important for checking modern models.

“It’s emotionally difficult to keep working”: on working during the full-scale war

At the beginning of the full-scale war, I was in Kyiv. At that time, my child was one and a half years old. When we woke up on February 24, I saw a lot of messages from my friends from abroad. Although we all knew from the news that a full-scale invasion could begin, it was difficult to realise until the end.

In the first days, my daughter and husband got sick with Covid. On one side, we heard explosions. On the other, I had a child with a temperature of 39 °C and had to do something about it. At that time, even paracetamol was challenging to get.

In the end, on March 2, I decided to leave for Germany with my daughter — I knew that I would not be here alone and would receive support from colleagues and acquaintances.

It is tough emotionally to continue working, and of course, it affects the general condition a lot. At the same time, I wish to be useful to Ukraine. That’s why I try to do my job as well as possible because I understand that I represent my country here.

My research helps to understand how the Earth and the Solar System formed. At the same time, during the search for exoplanets, we talk a lot about the need to save our planet.

We should be aware that there is no other planet where we could fly to and build a life, and there won’t be any in the near future. Therefore, we need to do our best so that here and now, we are well and safe.

To conduct observations and obtain the necessary accuracy of what we observe, advanced technologies and developments are needed — which can then, in particular, be used in other areas. For example, several of my colleagues with astronomy education went into medicine and began to investigate the formation of specific oncological processes because the method is similar.

“Preserving scientific potential is crucial because it will determine our future.”

The education system is vital for the country — it shapes our future. The scientific community is also essential. Therefore, we definitely need serious action and reforms at the state level to support scientists. Although we cannot compete with other countries in many areas, Ukraine still has a robust scientific community. Ukrainian scientists are incredibly cool because they do a lot for research, even with little money. Therefore, it is imperative to preserve the scientific potential.

And there is no doubt that we will win this war. We are fighting for a better future. Our people will be able to rebuild everything and create the best of what will be available to us.

Even before the war, only a few people were studying exoplanets in Ukraine. For instance, I am the only person working on the formation of planets. Therefore, of course, I would very much like to create my scientific group. And I even have an idea of how a significant project can be implemented with a limited budget but with hardworking and talented people. This idea is currently tricky to fulfil due to security and financial conditions. However, I believe that it will become possible already in the near future

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