Two high school students have identified four new exoplanets about 200-light-years from Earth, deeming them ‘the youngest astronomers’ to make such a discovery.
Kartik Pinglé, 16, and Jasmine Wright, 18, who both attend schools in Massachusetts, participated in the Student Research Mentoring Program (SRMP) at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian (CfA).
Along with the help of Tansu Daylan, a postdoc at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, the students studied and analyzed data from the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
Together they focused on Tess Object of Interest (TOI) 1233, a nearby, bright sun-like star and here they found four planets rotating around the star.
‘We were looking to see changes in light over time,’ Pinglé explained. ‘The idea being that if the planet transits the star, or passes in front of it, it would [periodically] cover up the star and decrease its brightness.’
TESS is a space-based satellite, which has discovered more than 20,000 transiting exoplanets – some of which may be super-Earths located in the habitable zone.
While probing 1233, Pinglé and Wright had at least hoped to find one planet, but were overwhelmed with joy when a total of four were spotted.
‘I was very excited and very shocked,’ Wright said. ‘We knew this was the goal of Daylan’s research, but to actually find a multiplanetary system, and be part of the discovering team, was really cool.’
Three of the newly discovered planets are deemed ‘sub-Neptunes,’ which are gaseous, but smaller to the Neptune that lives in our solar system.
While observing the planets, the team determined each one completes their orbit around 1233 every six to 19.5 days.
However, the fourth planet is labeled a ‘super-Earth’ for its large size and rockiness – this one orbits around the star in just under four days.
‘Our species has long been contemplating planets beyond our solar system and with multi-planetary systems, you’re kind of hitting the jackpot,’ Dylan said.
‘The planets originated from the same disk of matter around the same star, but they ended up being different planets with different atmospheres and different climates due to their different orbits. So, we would like to understand the fundamental processes of planet formation and evolution using this planetary system.’
Daylan added that it was a ‘win-win’ to work with Pinglé and Wright on the study.
‘As a researcher, I really enjoy interacting with young brains that are open to experimentation and learning and have minimal bias,’ he said.
‘I also think it is very beneficial to high school students, since they get exposure to cutting-edge research and this prepares them quickly for a research career.’
Written by Stacy Liberatore