17Feb2016

Astronomer Makes Out Of This World Discovery

An artist's impression of an exoplanet. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

An artist’s impression of an exoplanet. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

A Toowoomba (Australia) astronomer has made an out-of-this-world discovery, one of major proportions and in doing so has placed  the city’s scientific credentials well and truly on the map!

Its A Long Way Away

As part of his work with an international and collaborative astronomical survey, Jack Soutter helped discover an exoplanet five quadrillion kilometres away. The planet, which has the unromantic name of KELT10B, is orbiting a star in the telescopium constellation.

When the star is behind a planet, its brightness will seem to dim. Wikipedia

When the star is behind a planet, its brightness will seem to dim. Wikipedia

The planet is so far away that it was not detected directly, but rather through seeing tiny wobbles or winks in the light from the faraway star, KELT10. The wink is caused by the planet blocking out the light of the star.

The discovery was made as part of the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope survey, with the 25-year-old confirming the planet’s existence from the University of Southern Queensland’s Mt Kent Observatory near Greenmount. The planet is about 70% the mass of Jupiter and hugs its host star, orbiting about eight million km away.

A Great Personal Moment

Mr Soutter, a postgraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland, said helping to discover the planet was a huge moment for him personally. “It’s an amazing feeling. I didn’t realise the scale of the discovery until later.”

When a new planet is found scientists do high-quality follow-up observations to help confirm the discovery. There are many things that can make a star behave oddly and scientists need to rule these out to confirm they have found a planet.

That’s where Mr Soutter’s work came in. Using a 70cm telescope at the observatory, he was able to confirm it was, indeed, a planet. Associate Professor Jonti Horner, a USQ Senior Research Fellow, said the discovery had the international scientific community talking about Toowoomba.

One Of Many Possible

Diagram showing how a planet and a star orbit their common center of mass (red cross). Wikipedia“I’m hopeful that this will be the first of many discoveries to come from Mt Kent,” he said. Dr Horner’s work could put him as a character on the X-Files; he searches for planets that can support extraterrestrial life. “Our generation could be the first to answer the question of ‘are we alone’?”

Discovering the new planet was no easy task, with the planet one billion times fainter than a star. “It’s like trying to see a moth flying around a lighthouse from a hundred miles away,” Dr Horner said.

Dr Horner also analyses the orbits of planets and where they are in space, but his focus right now is on setting up the Minvera Australis observatory which will complement a site in Arizona. Source: Chronicle

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