Friday, December 3, 2021

Student Finds 17 New Planets, Including Potentially Habitable, Earth-Sized World

University of British Columbia astronomy student Michelle Kunimoto has discovered 17 new planets, including a potentially habitable, Earth-sized world, by combing through data gathered by NASA’s Kepler mission. Over its original 4-year mission, the Kepler satellite looked for planets, especially those that lie in the “Habitable Zones” of their stars, where liquid water could exist on a rocky planet’s surface.

Sizes of the 17 new candidate planets, compared to Mars, Earth, and Neptune.
Sizes of the 17 new planet candidates, compared to Mars, Earth, and Neptune. The planet in green is KIC-7340288 b, a rare rocky planet in the Habitable Zone. (Image: via Michelle Kunimoto)

The new findings, published in The Astronomical Journal, include one such particularly rare planet. Officially named KIC-7340288 b, the planet discovered by Kunimoto is just 1 ½ times the size of Earth — small enough to be considered rocky, instead of gaseous like the giant planets of the Solar System — and in the Habitable Zone of its star. Kunimoto, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of physics and astronomy, said:

Planets found so far

The planet has a year that is 142 ½ days long, orbiting its star at 0.444 Astronomical Units (AU, the distance between Earth and our Sun) — just bigger than Mercury’s orbit in our Solar System, and gets about a third of the light Earth gets from the Sun. Of the other 16 new planets discovered, the smallest is only two-thirds the size of Earth — one of the smallest planets to be found with Kepler so far. The rest range in size up to eight times the size of Earth.

UBC astronomy student Michelle Kunimoto (Image: Michelle Kunimoto)
UBC astronomy student Michelle Kunimoto (Image: via Michelle Kunimoto)

Kunimoto is no stranger to discovering planets: She previously discovered four during her undergraduate degree at UBC. Now working on her Ph.D. at UBC, she used what is known as the “transit method” to look for the planets among the roughly 200,000 stars observed by the Kepler mission. Kunimoto said:

Kunimoto also collaborated with UBC alumnus Henry Ngo to obtain razor-sharp follow-up images of some of her planet-hosting stars with the Near InfraRed Imager and Spectrometer (NIRI) on the Gemini North 8-metre Telescope in Hawaii, she said:

In addition to the new planets, Kunimoto was able to observe thousands of known Kepler planets using the transit-method, and will be reanalyzing the exoplanet census as a whole. Kunimoto’s Ph.D. supervisor and UBC professor Jaymie Matthews said:

Provided by: University of British Columbia [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.
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