Astronomy Student Finds 17 New Exoplanets In Stumping Discovery

Among the new planets is one of particular interest: An alien world roughly the size of Earth, orbiting its host star in the so-called habitable zone, where liquid water can exist on the surface. 

An Astronomy Ph.D. candidate from the University of British Columbia has found evidence of no less than 17 entirely new exoplanets in a stumping discovery of astronomical proportions.

Among the seventeen new alien planets, one of them is believed to be a world roughly the same size of Earth, orbiting its host star in the so-called “habitable, or Goldilocks zone” the region around a star where water can exist on the surface of a planet in a liquid state.

The new planets were discovered after Michelle Kunimoto combed through data gathered by NASA’s Kepler mission.

The Kepler space telescope has helped in our understanding of the universe, and the number of planets that exist elsewhere in the cosmos.

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,1260 exoplanets. However, Kepler spotted many other exoplanets that have still not been confirmed. As per NASA’s Exoplanet Archive, there are 2,420 Kepler Project Candidates awaiting confirmation.

Of the seventeen planets, there is one in particular which has evoked special interest in astronomers. It’s officially called KIC-7340288 b, and the world is believed to be just 1 ½ times the size of Earth—which means it is small enough to be considered a rocky world, instead of gaseous like the giant planets of the Solar System. The best part is, the planet orbits its host star in a region dubbed as the Goldilocks zone, where liquid water—and perhaps life as we know it— may exist.

“This planet is about a thousand light-years away, so we’re not getting there soon!” revealed Kunimoto.

“But this is a really exciting find since there have only been 15 small, confirmed planets in the Habitable Zone found in Kepler data so far.”

Artist's concept of the potentially habitable exoplanet, Kepler-186f. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.
Artist’s concept of the potentially habitable exoplanet, Kepler-186f. Image Credit: NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech.

According to the data gathered so far, the planet in question has a year that is 142 ½ days long, and it circles its star at a distance of 0.444 Astronomical Units (AU is the distance between the Earth and our Sun) – just bigger than Mercury’s orbit in our Solar System. The planet is believed to receive about a third of the light Earth gets from the Sun.

The exoplanets discovered by Kunimoto are of various sizes., One of the worlds, the smallest found, is no more than two-thirds the size of Earth. This exoplanet is characterized as one of the smaller Kepler has found so far. The rest of the alien worlds range in size up to eight times the size of our own world.

Although the newly found planets have taken astronomers by surprise, Kunimoto is no stranger to find distant alien worlds. In fact, during her undergraduate degree at UBC, she discovered four exoplanets.

Image of potentially habitable exoplanets. Image Credit: A Mendez/PHL.
Image of potentially habitable exoplanets. Image Credit: A Mendez/PHL.

To make the new discovery, Kunimoto made use of a planet-hunting technique called the “Transit Method” to look for distant alien worlds among approximately two hundred thousand observed starts by the Kepler Space Telescope.

“Every time a planet passes in front of a star, it blocks a portion of that star’s light and causes a temporary decrease in the star’s brightness,” Kunimoto said.

“By finding these dips, known as transits, you can start to piece together information about the planet, such as its size and how long it takes to orbit.”

In addition to the newly found alien worlds, Kunimoto was able to observe thousands of known Kepler planets using the transit method and will be reanalyzing the exoplanet census as a whole.

The discoveries made by Kunimoto have been published in The Astronomical Journal.

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