Who says interns are there just to make cups of tea and help with the boring tasks like divvying out post?
Imagine if your time with a potential employer was spent, I don’t know, say, discovering a new planet? Pretty sure you’d be a shoo-in for a permanent job?
Which is exactly what happened at NASA! Two interns, along with a team of amateur astronomers, discovered a new ‘super Earth’.
This new ‘super Earth’ – also known as K2-288Bb – is said to be roughly twice the size of Earth, and located within its star’s habitable zone, raising hopes it could contain life.
Using data from NASA’s Kepler space telescope, the planet is thought to be 226 light-years away in the constellation Taurus. According to NASA, it could be rocky, or could be a gas-rich planet similar to Neptune.
Its size is considered rare among planets beyond our solar system.
Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student, and lead author of a paper describing the new planet, accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal, said:
It’s a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon.
In 2017, Feinstein and Makennah Bristow – an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville – worked as interns along with Joshua Schlieder, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
They searched Kepler data for evidence of transits – the regular dimming of a star when an orbiting planet moves across the star’s face.
— Geert Barentsen (@GeertHub) January 7, 2019
Examining data from the fourth observing campaign of Kepler’s K2 mission, the team noticed two likely planetary transits in the system.
But a third transit was required before claiming the discovery of a candidate planet, and there wasn’t a third signal in the observations they’d looked over.
However, it turned out the team weren’t actually analysing all of the data.
In Kepler’s K2 mode – which ran for five years from 2014-2018 – the spacecraft had repositioned itself to point at a different patch of sky. This repositioning occurred at the start of each three-month observing campaign.
Originally, astronomers were concerned the repositioning would cause errors, so ignored the first few days of observations.
Yet once re-examining it, they found the data needed to confirm the exoplanet.
The new data was posted to Exoplanet Explorers – a project where the public are able to observe Kepler’s K2 observations, in order to try to locate new transiting planets.
It was in May 2017, volunteers noticed the third transit, which led to a discussion about what was then thought to be an Earth-sized candidate in the system.
It subsequently caught the attention of Feinstein and co, who said:
That’s how we missed it – and it took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it.
Follow-up observations started, using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory, and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (the latter two in Hawaii). The team also also examined data from ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Gaia mission.
Incredible. Fox Mulder always said the truth is out there…