Four new planets that lay beyond our solar system were discovered by a UBC graduate who spent months sifting through data from NASA.
The objects have been deemed “planet candidates” since independent confirmation is needed for official planet status. Two of them are the size of Earth, one is Mercury-sized, and one is just a bit larger than Neptune.
The Neptune-sized planet – dubbed KOI (Keplar Object of Interest) 408.05 – is 3,200 light years away from Earth, and it occupies a habitable zone of its star that might be conducive to water and life.
“Like our own Neptune, it’s unlikely to have a rocky surface or oceans,” says Michelle Kunimoto, the former student who made the discovery, in a release. “The exciting part is that like the large planets in our solar system, it could have large moons and these moons could have liquid water oceans.”
Kunimoto, who holds a bachelor degree in physics and astronomy, observed subtle dips (known as transits) in the brightness of stars captured by NASA’s Kepler telescope, indicating the existence and possible size of planets. The telescope spent four years observing periodic changes in the brightness of 150,000 stars in our solar system.
The Neptune-sized planet was a particularly rare discovery, since it has such a large orbit – the larger the orbit, the fewer transits you’re able to observe.
Kunimoto has submitted her findings to the Astronomical Journal and will be returning to UBC for a master’s degree in physics and astronomy in September.