Teenagers Discover Potential Exoplanets While On Work Experience

Artist's impression of the simultaneous stellar eclipse and planetary transit events on Kepler-1647, a planet similar to the ones being hunted at Keele University. Lynette Cook

British teenagers on work experience at Keele University might have found at least one potential exoplanet.

The object, which is described as a strong candidate for a world outside the Solar System, is a Neptune-sized planet that orbits a Sun-like star in 19 days, at a distance of 800 light-years away. It was discovered as part of "Project Tatooine", which focused on the search for planets that orbit two stars like Tatooine in Star Wars.

"The project entailed the students rapidly assimilating a great deal of new knowledge about stellar variability and astrophysical measurements," said Professor Rob Jeffries, who hosted the work experience, in a statement.

There were 24 students attending the project, and they were divided into teams of six. Their job was to spot eclipsing binaries (two stars orbiting each other) by looking at sudden dips in a star's luminosity using data from the Kepler telescope.

The space observatory took stellar light measurements every 30 minutes over the course of 75 days. Each team looked for potential candidates among thousands of light curves, and at the end of the week, they presented their results to the other teams and Keele’s astrophysics group.

"It’s been a fun week, and I've met new people, and you'd never do this anywhere else. And because the information is all public, if I want to, I can now go home and do more research myself, and learn more," said 15-year-old Josh, from Trentham High School, who made the discovery.

Another potential object was discovered by a different student team. Surprisingly, the second object is very close in size and orbital period to the first candidate.

"We think this is probably another exoplanet candidate. And it's remarkably similar to the first one we found. This one's got an orbital period of about 18 days, and is also about the size of Neptune," said Professor Jeffries.

Some of the discoveries from the project will be followed up next week using the 2.5-meter (8.2-foot) Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands. Soon, those potential discoveries might join the ranks of the 4,000 and counting exoplanets.

 

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