Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Canadian astronomers participate in discovery of four exoplanets and a dwarf planet

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Psalms 8:3-4

The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Psalms 19:1

Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created. Revelation 4:11

As reported by David P. Ball in Metro, May 30, 2016:

When astronomy honour’s student Michelle Kunimoto graduates on Monday, she’ll do so already holding the honour of being a galactic pioneer with distinction.

The 22-year-old University of British Columbia undergraduate has discovered four new planets in the Cygnus (Swan) constellation, known as “exoplanets” because they’re outside our solar system.

“I got interested in exoplanets from Star Trek,” she told Metro in an interview in UBC’s physics department. “The whole theme of Star Trek, curiosity and exploration, is really important for the long, long, long term. We want to answer the age-old question: Are we alone?”

She spent months poring through 400 different data samples from the Kepler space telescope, which captures the curves of light from distant stars. Sudden dips in their light can correspond to planets passing in front of them.

Kunimoto likened her method to trying to hear one quiet voice in a crowded room full of loud talkers. But when she first noticed the faint but tell-tale dip, she didn’t allow herself get excited.

“I had to be very careful,” she explained. “I ran them through a lot of tests, but the more tests I ran, the more confident I felt.

“When they all passed the right tests, and I had these four planets remaining, that was really exciting!”

The planet she’s most enthusiastic about is called Kepler Object Of Interest 408.05, which she nicknamed “Warm Neptune,” because it’s roughly the size of its namesake planet, but is within the distance needed for the warm, Earth-like atmosphere needed to host life. It’s 3,200 light years from Earth.

Technically, what she found are still considered “planet candidates” until they can be independently confirmed, but for her UBC supervisor the results are clear.

“It’s rare that you have that ‘Eureka!’ moment any more,” astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews told Metro proudly. “Michelle’s discovery was time-consuming, and she’s done this for only 400 out of 150,000 light curves.”

But will Kunimoto’s “Warm Neptune” — located within what Matthews dubbed the “Goldilocks” zone of planets that are neither too hot nor too cold to support life — potentially be home to intelligent life?

“You can bet that once the results are confirmed and more widely disseminated, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute will put KOI-408.05 on their list of higher-priority targets to monitor,” Matthews said. “If there is life and signals we could eavesdrop on, these are the places they’d be coming from...”
As reported by Mr. Ball in Metro, July 12, 2016:

Canadian astronomers have helped make a far-out find some 12 billion km from our sun: a new dwarf planet with an “unusual” 700-year orbit.

Spotted by an international team that includes top researchers in Vancouver and Victoria, it is the largest object in the solar system that Canadians have ever found.

And according to University of British Columbia’s Brett Gladman, the crew behind the discovery isn’t letting the fact that it’s “smallish” get in the way of their excitement — the object’s diameter is barely wider than B.C., making it what’s known as a “dwarf planet.”

“Think of it as a smallish planet,” explained Gladman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in planetary astronomy. “It’s not quite big enough to be a planet, but it’s still an impressive object with enough gravity to pull it into a spherical shape.”

“It’s about twice as far from the sun as Neptune’s orbit, so it’s really out there.”

First spotted in late February, using five-month-old images from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope at the top of the volcano island of Maunakea, for now the dwarf is simply named “2015 RR245.”

The Outer Solar System Origins Survey researchers found it by comparing very high-resolution photographs taken through the telescope. Computers then scanned for any dots that moved between frames — but it took human observers to sift through the results to make the final call.

However, until more detailed measurements can confirm its size and shape more precisely, technically it’s still a “dwarf planet candidate.”

Nevertheless, “it’s basically as good a case as the majority of other dwarf planet candidates,” Gladman said. “Everybody was quite excited.

“We expected to find a bright thing eventually, but didn’t expect it would be so far away or as large.”

It's not the first time this year UBC has unearthed other planets, but usually they're out of our solar system. An undergraduate student, for example, discovered four "exoplanets" orbiting a distant star this spring.

One surprising aspect of the new discovery, Gladman said, is that “2015 RR245" has a massive orbit that will see it come close to Neptune — despite its farthest reach being on the “outer edge” of the Kuiper Belt, a band of extremely distant objects orbiting our sun.

“Its very eccentric orbit is a little surprising,” he said. “If it actually is mildly unstable, which is possible given what we know, it would be surprising that such a big thing has survived so long. We’ll have to wait and see.

“That might reveal even more surprises.”
Go here to see a longer article on the discovery of the dwarf planet.

No comments:

Post a Comment