Astronomy PhD Student Discovers 17 New Worlds

Image Credit: Bryan Goff

Michelle Kunimoto is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Together with her supervisor Jaymie Matthews, she combs through millions of observations made by the Kepler satellite in search of new planets around distant stars. All of these are found by the so-called transit method, which looks for eclipsing planets around their host stars, as they dim the light of these stars ever so slightly. During its 4 year mission, the satellite observed over 200,000 stars, each of them many times.

With so much data you need special techniques and powerful computers to analyze it all, something that is being done by many scientists around the globe. Because of this most would think that all discoverable planets inside this data would be found by now, but Kunimoto decided to look over the entire timespan of the data, trying to find planets with long periods. This idea paid off, as she discovered 17 planets with it, the most interesting of which being KIC-7340288 b.

Kunimoto Discovery Includes Earth-like Planet

This planet is interesting because it is one of the most earth like planets amongst not only the 17 discovered by Kunimoto by one of the most earth like in the entire database. The planet is only about 1.5 times the size of the Earth and orbits its host star in a close orbit not unlike Mercury. Despite this closeness, it still only receives about a third of the light when compared to us, due to the star being less bright. It orbits this star in a bit under 5 months and is most probably a rocky planet.

This makes it a rare find indeed, as most planets discovered to date are gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. Not because they are more prevalent in space, but because they are so much bigger than their rocky cousins. Scientists using the Kepler data have only managed to find 15 such planets to date, so this really is an exclusive club to join. The rest of the planets that Kunimoto found are quite a lot bigger, with the biggest being about eight times the size of the Earth.

All of these planets were confirmed by observations with the 8-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, where Kunimoto and her colleague Henry Nago took high resolution images of the area to make sure that the Kepler telescope did not confuse two close by stars for a transit.

PhD Spent Working with Kepler Database

Kunimoto will spend the rest of her PhD working with this database, trying to find correlations between the temperatures of stars and how many planets they have. A project that should shed more light on the occurrence rate of planets ending up in the habitable zone.

For those who are wondering if we can visit this planet any time soon, do not get your hopes up as it is about a 1000 light years away. To bring that into perspective, the Voyager probe is both the fastest and furthest man-made object ever made, traveling well over 42 years at ridiculous speeds. In this time it traveled a mere 0.002 light years.

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