A UBC astronomer and a Canadian space telescope played pivotal roles in the discovery of a new planet — a so-called Super-Earth — found orbiting a sun well beyond our solar system.
Prof. Jaymie Matthews said researchers first spotted clues to the planet, orbiting a star 180 light years away, in a speck of data produced by NASA's Kepler space telescope.
But before they could confirm it, the Kepler satellite had moved on from tracking that part of the sky and couldn’t go back.
And so they turned to Matthews, who also oversees Canada's small but effective space telescope called MOST, which stands for Microvariability and Oscillations of Stars satellite
"It's like being a prospector for gold in the Yukon. Only one hint," Matthews said.
Matthews and his team pointed MOST in the right direction and saw the light level of the star dim slightly as the planet passed between it and the space telescope.
"We did check it out, and we were able to solidify it into more than just a hint, but a confirmation."
Water-world on ice?
What they found was a planet 2.5 times the size of earth and 12 times its mass.
"An even more exciting possibility is that it’s three-quarters water," he said.
"It could be a miniature version of the ice giant planet Neptune.”
They also determined the super-earth is too close to its sun to support life as we know it.
"This particular planet’s calendar wouldn’t take many pages,” said Matthews. “It orbits its sun every 9.1 days. That’s the length of a year on HIP 116454 b.”
But Matthews says other planets may be nearby, and who knows what or who they hold.
"This Super-Earth may have neighbours, and one might be in the star’s habitable zone. Only time and careful study of this system will tell.”
As to for the name — HIP 116454 b — Matthews admits it may not catch on.
"We're getting better at discovering planets. We're not very good at naming them."