If you think you're too young to contribute to science, you're probably wrong. If you think you need to be a professional scientist, you're definitely wrong. A 15-year-old schoolboy has discovered a planet 1,000 light-years away, and while it's not a suitable host for life, the discovery adds to our growing body of knowledge about the diversity of planetary formation.
Tom Wagg was doing work experience at Keele University in 2013 when he picked up dips in the light curve of a star labelled WASP-142 via observations made by the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP). Such dips can be the result of planets passing in front of stars, but there are other possible explanations.
It has taken two years for the scientists to confirm that what Wagg detected really is a planet. Still, even if Wagg's achievement is dated to the confirmation, at 17 years old he is almost certainly the youngest person to discover a planet.
"I'm hugely excited to have found a new planet, and I'm very impressed that we can find them so far away," says Wagg. "The WASP software was impressive, enabling me to search through hundreds of different stars, looking for ones that have a planet.” The WASP program combines data from several telescopes and is a world leader in finding planets located close to their parent star, dubbed “hot Jupiters.” Among their astonishing finds are the WASP-17b, the first planet found to orbit in the opposite direction from the one in which its star rotates.
The planet Wagg found is about the size of Jupiter, but it orbits so close to its parent star that its year is just two Earth-days. Such proximity means that average temperatures on the gas giant, or any moons, would be extraordinarily hot; it also made detection easier since the transits are so frequent.
Planets so close to stars are thought to always be tidally locked (synchronous) so that one side always faces the star, just as one side of our moon faces the Earth. This would drive temperatures even higher on the near face of WASP-142b, while making the far side relatively cool, which in turn would create staggeringly powerful winds. Any moons would probably be synchronous with the planet, rather than the star, and thus would experience regular days and nights, albeit at astonishing temperatures.
Theories of how stars like WASP-142b came to be in such orbits involve interactions with planets further out, making WASP -142 a good place to look for additional planets.
Since discovering a planet at 15 years old, Tom Wagg has achieved A* for 12 GCSE subjects and plans to study physics at university. Credit: Keele University.
The International Astronomical Union is addressing how exoplanets are currently (and boringly) referred to, and Wagg is looking forward to suggesting a name when attention turns to WASP-142b.
Top Image Credit: David A. Hardy