UBC graduate student finds 17 new planets, one potentially Earth-like

UBC graduate student Michelle Kunimoto explains remarkable discovery
UBC Physics and Astronomy Ph.D. candidate Michelle Kunimoto tells Global News how she discovered 17 exoplanets orbiting distant stars.

What was your biggest accomplishment in university?

Odds are, it doesn’t stack up to finding 17 new planets, including one that could potentially support life.

That’s the remarkable line item that UBC physics and astronomy PhD candidate Michelle Kunimoto recently added to her resume by digging through data from NASA’s Kepler mission.

READ MORE: Kepler telescope dies after 9.5-year mission that saw it discover 2,681 planets

The Kepler Space Telescope spent more than nine years hunting for planets outside of our solar system, with an emphasis on those in the habitable so-called “Goldilocks zone” around stars. More than 2,600 such exoplanets have been discovered through the mission.

Kunimoto’s additions to that list were recently published in the The Astronomical Journal, and were found using what’s known as the “transit method.”

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The technique involves measuring the decrease in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it.

UBC student discovers four new planets
UBC student discovers four new planets

One of Kunimoto’s discoveries is of particular note.

Dubbed KIC-7340288 b, the exoplanet is just 1.5 times the size of Earth, is small enough to be considered rocky rather than gaseous, and sits tantalizingly in that Goldilocks zone.

Mars, Earth and Neptune compared in size to the 17 planets Michelle Kunimoto discovered.
Mars, Earth and Neptune compared in size to the 17 planets Michelle Kunimoto discovered. Michelle Kunimoto

Sadly, it’s far enough away that humans could never reach it with known technology.

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These are thousands of light years away, we’re not getting there any time soon,” said Kunimoto.

“But this is a really exciting find, since there have only been 15 small, confirmed planets in the Habitable Zone found in Kepler data so far.”

READ MORE: Astronomers claim they discovered first moon outside our solar system

The 16 other planets Kunimoto discovered include one just two-thirds Earth’s size and one eight times the size of our home planet.

Kunimoto has actually discovered 21 planets in total.

The young scientist notched her first four finds as an undergraduate at UBC — discoveries that helped her land a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list for science in 2017.

Concordia University’s new space for new ideas
Concordia University’s new space for new ideas