As it turns out, there are even more planets beyond the solar system than previously thought. The discovery of four new planets by Michelle Kunimoto, an astronomy student at the University of British Columbia (UBC), has hit the latest astronomy news headlines, in what is set to be a mind-boggling discovery and one that will leave astronomers wondering what else the solar system could be holding.
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Two of the planets are the same size as the Earth, one is Mercury-sized while the fourth planet is somewhat larger than Neptune. The fourth and largest planet has, however, created a lot of particular interest. The planet is thought to have temperatures that would allow liquid water and most probably support life.
According to Kunimoto, the planet, which is officially recorded as Kepler Object of Interest (KOI) 408.05 and positioned 3,200 light-years away from the Earth, has moons that possibly have water oceans.
Even though the likelihood of supporting life was fascinating, Kunimoto was thrilled about the discovery for other reasons – she was able to discover something that NASA scientists have overlooked for more than four years.
The Kepler space telescope has been staring at more than 150,000 stars in the galaxy for four years, recording periodic changes in the brightness and collecting data called light curves. Kunimoto says that she concentrated on the subtle dips known as transits in a star’s brightness each time a planet passes in front of it. That way, she was able to know the diameter of a planet outside the solar system, which significantly contributed to the discovery of the four planets.
The new “Neptune” takes 637 days to orbit its sun and is among the 20 out of nearly 5,000 planets and planet candidates discovered by the Kepler satellite that has orbital periods longer than KOI 408.05.
Kunimoto has already submitted her findings to the Astronomical Journal and will be going back to UBC in September to start her master’s degree in physics and astronomy, looking for more planets and establishing if they could support life. In the meantime, the four planets will remain “planet candidates” until they are independently confirmed.