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UBC student discovers four new planets

By Eric MacKenzie

Michelle Kunimoto (right) has found four planet candidates that UBC astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews (left) expects to be confirmed as previously undiscovered worlds. 
Martin Dee/UBC

Michelle Kunimoto (right) has found four planet candidates that UBC astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews (left) expects to be confirmed as previously undiscovered worlds. Martin Dee/UBC

A UBC student could be the youngest person to ever discover a planet outside of our solar system — and she’s found four of them.

Michelle Kunimoto, 22, found the planets by searching through light curves collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope, combing through information overlooked by other scientists.

“A star is just a pinpoint of light, so I’m looking for subtle dips in a star’s brightness every time a planet passes in front of it,” Kunimoto explained in a release.

Jaymie Matthews, Kunimoto’s astronomy professor and a member of NASA’s Kepler executive council, said experts didn’t delve into the data Kunimoto analyzed because it amounted to low signal levels that often produce “false alarms.” But Matthews has no doubt Kunimoto’s “planet candidates” — as they’re known for now — will be confirmed.

“It’s a little bit like looking for something in your backyard in the grass,” Matthews said of his student’s methodology. “If it’s a big tool that pops up about twice as high as the level of the grass, it’s easy to see from a distance ... if it’s an engagement ring, you’ve got to look really closely.

“Essentially, Michelle was looking for the equivalent of engagement rings in the grass, going below the level NASA teams had done.”

Two of the planets are of similar size to Earth, another is comparable to Mercury and the fourth is approximate in size to Neptune. The Neptune-sized orb, located 3,200 light years away and designated as KOI-408.05 (Kepler Object of Interest) for the time being, is the most intriguing find because it sits in the habitable zone of the star it orbits — where liquid water and life may exist.

“Like the large planets in our solar system, it could have large moons, and these moons could have liquid water oceans,” said Kunimoto.

Kunimoto just received her bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy on Monday, and will begin work on her master’s at UBC in September. The fact that most people researching data similar to or from the Kepler telescope are at least graduate students is why Matthews believe she may be the youngest astronomer to find an exoplanet.

“If she’s not the youngest, I would say she’s probably in the youngest three,” he said.