British Columbia

UBC astronomy student finds 17 new possible planets, 1 may have water

Michelle Kunimoto scours space for undiscovered planets. And she’s just uncovered 17 new possible ones, including a potentially habitable, Earth-sized world.

Michelle Kunimoto looked at publicly available NASA data online for her PhD research

Michelle Kunimoto, a UBC graduate student, discovered 17 new potential exoplanets by looking through data from NASA's Kepler mission. (Martin Dee)

University of British Columbia astronomy student Michelle Kunimoto has an out-of-this world job. 

Kunimoto scours space for undiscovered planets. And she's just uncovered 17 new possible ones, including a potentially habitable, Earth-sized world.

"This is a big discovery and definitely one that I'm most excited about," said Kunimoto.

Her findings are still considered planet candidates, meaning they need to go through additional verification to be considered confirmed planets, which takes more time and research. 

Kunimoto, who is working on her PhD in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC, combs through data gathered by NASA's Kepler mission which surveyed the Milky Way galaxy between 2009 and 2013. 

"All the data is publicly available," Kunimoto said. "I was able to go on to an Internet archive where all the data is available and I just downloaded it all." 

Sizes of the 17 new planet candidates, compared to Mars, Earth, and Neptune. The planet in green is KIC-7340288 b, a rare rocky planet in the Habitable Zone. (Michelle Kunimoto)

The planets she found are thousands of light years away and not visible from earth, even with the most powerful telescopes. Instead, Kunimoto looks for evidence using the "transit method."

"Essentially, every time a planet passes in front of a star, it blocks a portion of that star's light," Kunimoto said. "So, I was looking for signs of these temporary decreases in brightness."

Of the 17 instances she found that indicate planets, one of them is particularly rare: the KIC-7340288 b planet. 

It's about one and half times the size of Earth — small enough to be rocky, instead of gaseous like larger planets — and at a specific distance from its star that is considered habitable because it could have enough atmospheric pressure to support water. 

"Obviously, this has important implications for searching for signs of life," Kunimoto said. 

"If it does get confirmed, it'll be among the one of the rarest planets that we found so far."

Kunimoto is no stranger to discovering planets: she previously discovered four during her undergraduate degree at UBC. (Martin Dee)

This is not the first time Kunimoto has discovered new planets, she previously found four during her undergraduate degree at UBC.

Her latest findings, co-authored by her PhD supervisor Jaymie Matthews and UBC alumnus Henry Ngo, were published in The Astronomical Journal last week. 

"It's the product of months and months — years, really — of work to finally reach the point where you can say that you've discovered a new planet candidate," Kunimoto said. 

"So this is really rewarding."

With files from Micki Cowan