A UBC student has found no less than 17 new possible planets, including one that appears to meet the conditions required to hold liquid water on its surface.
Michelle Kunimoto, a PhD candidate in UBC’s department of physics and astronomy, made the discoveries analyzing data collected by NASA’s Kepler mission, which used a telescope launched into space to gather information about celestial bodies found orbiting stars.
“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.”
Kunimoto’s findings, published in The Astronomical Journal, describe all 17 planets but it’s KIC-7340288 b that’s getting all the attention. That’s because it’s just 1.5 times the size of Earth and orbiting in its solar system’s so-called “habitable zone”, where it might not be too cold or too hot to support life.
“This planet is about a thousand light years away, so we’re not getting there anytime soon!” Kunimoto said quoted in a UBC media release. “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.”
KIC-7340288 b’s orbit is just a little bit bigger than Mercury’s, its year lasts 142.5 days, and it receives about a one third of light from its sun that Earth receives from ours, according to the release.
Kunimoto is continuing to work with Kepler’s data on the question of how many other planets fall within habitable zones similar to KIC-7340288 b’s.
“We’ll be estimating how many planets are expected for stars with different temperatures,” said Kunimoto’s PhD supervisor and UBC professor Jaymie Matthews. “A particularly important result will be finding a terrestrial Habitable Zone planet occurrence rate. How many Earth-like planets are there? Stay tuned.”