British Columbia

UBC student discovers 4 new exoplanets

UBC graduate Michelle Kunimoto searched through data collected by NASA's Kepler mission, which used a powerful telescope to look for planets outside the solar system.

New grad Michelle Kunimoto combed NASA data for planets the Kepler mission missed

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

Michelle Kunimoto got more than just a bachelor's degree during her time at university — she also discovered four new potential planets.

The recent UBC physics and astronomy graduate searched through data collected by NASA's Kepler mission, which used a powerful telescope to look for planets outside the solar system.

She found the four planetary candidates — as they're called until independently verified — by focusing on signals the original mission considered to be too weak to fully pursue.

Kunimoto likened it to trying to listen to someone in a crowded room. To make the search more manageable, the original NASA scientists decided to focus only on people talking above a certain volume, but Kunimoto went looking for the soft-spoken ones.

"I said, well, just because you can't hear him very well doesn't mean that he's not there," she told On the Coast host Stephen Quinn.

The findings came as part of a research position with her supervisor Jaymie Matthews, whose class on exoplanets and astrobiology fascinated her when she took it.

She also collaborated with Jason Rowe, who was on the original Kepler mission and wrote much of the search code.

"When he was able to say, yes, these look like planets, that was just an amazing moment," Kunimoto said.

Kunimoto's four planetary candidates are shown here to scale with Earth, Neptune and Mercury. (Michelle Kunimoto, Jaymie Matthews)

The moons of a 'warm Neptune'

The Kepler mission was designed to find faraway planets by watching them transit in front of the stars they orbit.

Scientists watch for short interruptions in a star's light that occur at regular intervals, which indicate a planet passing between the star and the Kepler telescope. The duration and period of these transits can be used to calculate the planet's size and distance from the star.

Of the four planet candidates Kunimoto discovered, one is of particular interest. It's about the size of Neptune, but it sits a "Goldilocks" distance awafrom the star it orbits — within the habitable zone of its solar system, which means liquid water could potentially be found.

But while the planet itself — formally dubbed KOI-408.05 — is likely a gas giant, scientists know from observing our own stellar backyard that planets of that size usually have moon systems of their own.

"Those kinds of moons would be in the habitable zone [too], and if they're large enough to sustain an atmosphere, they could actually have liquid water oceans," Kunimoto said.

Many classic science fiction tales feature habitable moons of such planets, including Avatar and Star Wars. And indeed, sci-fi was a major source of inspiration for Kunimoto's love of the stars.

That made it all the more special when Star Trek's William Shatner mentioned her research in his talk at UBC on Saturday.

"I could feel my face going red even though I knew nobody was looking at me," Kunimoto said. "As a huge Star Trek fan, that was unbelievable."

Kunimoto and Matthews have submitted the findings to the Astronomical Journal. Kunimoto will be returning to UBC in September to pursue a master's degree, hoping to find even more new planets and determine whether they're capable of supporting life.

Kunimoto's work landed her a meet-and-greet with William Shatner, who spoke at UBC on Saturday — and even signed her Wrath of Khan DVD.

With files from CBC's On the Coast.