Two Teenagers ‘Hit The Jackpot’ As They Discover Four Planets Orbiting A Close Sun-Like Star

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Two high schoolers aged just 16 and 18 years old have discovered four new exoplanets around the brightest known Sun-like star—and co-authored a paper published in The Astronomical Journal

A rare achievement, and one described as “hitting the jackpot” by their mentor, Jasmine Wright, 18 and Kartik Pinglé, 16, are paid for four hours’ work each week by the Center for Astrophysics, Harvard & Smithsonian as part of its Student Research Mentoring Program (SRMP).

Wright and Pinglé discovered the planets around a star called TOI-1233, the brightest known star similar in size and temperature to our own Sun, about 200 light-years from the Solar System in the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus. The star is also known as HD 108236. It was already known that one exoplanet was in orbit.

With the discovery, the star becomes the brightest Sun-like star known to host four or more transiting exoplanets. It’s set to be an ideal target for NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). 

The young astronomers used data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a space telescope searching for exoplanets by recording drops in the brightness of stars. They also used data from ground-based telescopes.

“We were looking to see changes in light over time,” said Pinglé. “The idea being that if the planet transits the star, or passes in front of it, it would (periodically) cover up the star and decrease its brightness.” 

A slight dip is a sign that a planet may be crossing its Sun from the point of view of TESS. 

“I was very excited and very shocked,” said Wright of their discovery of four planets orbiting a star called TOI-1233. “We knew this was the goal … but to actually find a multi-planetary system, and be part of the discovering team, was really cool.” 

The planets orbiting TOI-1233 comprise one rocky “super-Earth” that orbits in under four days, and three Neptune-like gaseous planets that orbit in six, 14 and 19.5 days, respectively.

They consequently have average surface temperatures ranging from 700°F to 1,500°F to unlikely to host life, though their rapid orbits means more transits—and therefore dips in the hosts stars’ brightness. That means more opportunities for astronomers to examine the light passing through the atmosphere of the exoplanets. 

A research team used the CHaracterising Exoplanet Satellite (CHEOPS) recently confirmed a fifth planet, which takes 29 days to orbit the star.

It’s possible that there may be rocky planets further from TOI-1233, possibly within its “habitable zone” where liquid water would be possible. 

It’s also hoped that the discovery around TOI-1233 will help astronomers better understand the fundamental processes of planet formation and evolution. 

“With multi-planetary systems, you’re kind of hitting the jackpot,” said Wright and Pinglé mentor Tansu Daylan, a postdoc at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “When it comes to characterizing planetary atmospheres around sun-like stars, this is likely one of the best targets we will ever get.”

The planets originated from the same disk of matter around the same star, but they ended up being different planets with different atmospheres and different climates due to their different orbits. 

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Designed to connect high schoolers who are interested in research with real-world scientists at Harvard and MIT, SRMP accepts about 12 students each year and priorities underrepresented minorities. Once accepted, the students work with a mentors on a year-long research project. 

Not surprisingly, both students are set for careers in astronomy. Wright has just been accepted into a five-year Master of Astrophysics program at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, while Pinglé, a junior in high school, plans to study applied mathematics or astrophysics after graduation. 

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.

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