Finding a new planet in the vastness of space can be quite difficult even for veteran scientists but imagine having to find four new worlds all in one go. This is exactly what a 22-year-old astronomy student in Canada just did as part of her coursework.
University of British Columbia (UBC) student Michelle Kunimoto was given the task of analyzing data on various light curves collected using NASA's Kepler space telescope. She was told to search for new information that could have been overlooked by other researchers.
"A star is just a pinpoint of light, so I'm looking for subtle dips in a star's brightness every time a planet passes in front of it," Kunimoto said.
Jaymie Matthews, a Kepler executive council member and Kunimoto's professor in astronomy, said that scientists weren't able to dig deeper into the information that was given to Kunimoto because it initially only showed only low signal levels. He said that such readings often resulted only in "false alarms."
However, Matthews believes that the four planet candidates that Kunimoto was able to identify will be confirmed.
He explained that looking for new planets is much like searching for an object in a grass-filled backyard. If it happens to be a large object, it would be easier to spot from afar since it would appear taller than some of the grass. If it's as small as a ring, however, you would have to search the grass really closely in order to find it.
Matthews compared his student's achievement to looking for ring-sized objects in the grass, requiring her to go below levels than what NASA researchers had done during their own analysis.
Two of the planet candidates that Kunimoto discovered were comparable to the size of Earth, while another one was more the size of Mercury. The fourth planet, which was given the designation of Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) 408.05, was more akin to the size of Neptune.
KOI-408.05 appears to be the most interesting one of the group because it is located in its host star's habitable zone, which makes it a prime candidate for the possibility of liquid water as well as signs of alien life. The planet is about 3,200 light-years away from Earth.
Kunimoto said this particular planet may have a number of large moons, much like the large planets in the solar system. One of its moons could even have oceans of liquid water.