April 21, 2014

College of Charleston students discover new planet

Two College of Charleston undergraduate students have discovered an entirely new planet located outside our solar system.

Artist’s rendering of Kappa Andromedae b (Courtesy: NASA Goddard Flight Space Center)

Senior research students Thea Kozakis and Laura Stevens were analyzing infrared images from the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii when they spotted a faint object near the star Kappa Andromedae, located about 170 light years away from Earth. They noted the object in January, expecting it to be a “background star,” or another star located even further away that only appeared to be close to Kappa Andromedae.

But in July, the pair was able to receive a new set of images that confirmed the object was orbiting the star— meaning it was likely a previously unknown planet. NASA announced the discovery this month.

“I was super excited about it,” Stevens told South Carolina Radio Network, “It was unknown. It was really exciting because nobody knew about it. I was one of the only people in the whole world who knew that this thing existed. It was really neat.”

From L to R: Stevens, Carson, and Kozakis (Courtesy: College of Charleston)

The pair gave the new planet the nickname “Derek,” after getting the suggestion at a wedding. ”It felt right,” she said.

Once their findings were publicized, ”Derek” received its official name Kappa Andromedae b. Kappa And b has a mass that is nearly 13 times bigger than the planet Jupiter, NASA says.

Although 850 planets have been documented outside our own system (these are called “exoplanets”), this discovery is somewhat unusual because the planet was actually spotted in a telescope image. Direct imaging of exoplanets is rare because the dim objects are usually lost in a star’s brilliant glare. Most planets are discovered indirectly by monitoring a star’s brightness and detecting the fluctuations when a smaller object passes in front of that star.

“Not that many planets have been directly imaged,” Kozakis said, “Apparently, this was the first one in over four years. So, it’s really rare to find one and we were really, really excited.”

This false-color image was doctored to remove most of the scattered light from the star Kappa Andromedae. The planet can be seen in the upper left corner. It’s believed to be about 55 times further from its star than Earth is from the Sun (Courtesy: J.Carson/College of Charleston)

Kozakis is a senior astronomy major from Lebanon, New Jersey while Stevens is a fifth-year astrobiology major from Charlotte.

The team was led by College of Charleston professor Joe Carson, who also works for the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy. While he has been involved in finding several new “brown dwarves” (which are bigger than planets, but smaller than stars), Carson said this was the first time he had been on a team which directly imaged a new planet.

The observations were carried out as part of the Strategic Explorations of Exoplanets and Disks (SEED) with Subaru. The SEED project is a five-year attempt to directly image potential new planets that are orbiting stars relatively close to Earth. Carson’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through a $286,568 grant, according to the College of Charleston.

Carson said his team is already moving on to the next step, “In many cases, when you find one planet, it means there’s another planet there too,” he said. “One thing we’re doing is monitoring this system to try to see if there’s a secondary planet there that we might be able to see.”

Both Kozakis and Stevens said their understanding is that they are the first American undergraduate students to ever discover a planet, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Kozakis said, “I just can’t believe that I’ve already been able to make such a big discovery this early on.”