So You Found a Solar System

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  Last updated April 21, 2017 at 3:17 pm

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Awesome work people! Imagine a bunch of Australian “Stargazing Live” TV viewers discovering a brand new, never seen before solar system. And you did!


Ten thousand of you logged on to sift through data from the Kepler space telescope, analysing results from stars looking for “dips” in the light which might suggest a planet transiting in front. And boy did you ever find some planets! Dozens of new exoplanets were discovered, each more exciting than the last, the researchers you were helping couldn’t believe the results.


And then the big one hit. A few of you had discovered not one, not two, but four planets all orbiting a single star. A brand new solar system! When you logged on to assist I bet not even you were expecting that result! These 4 planets are all about twice the size of Earth, all crowded together close to their star. The furthest one out is only 1/3 of the distance from its star as Mercury is from the Sun, so it’s thought they’d be quite hot – too hot for humans. So maybe don’t expect to be able to go visit it just yet, although it is galactically “next door” at only 600 light years away.


They orbit their star very quickly (as you’d expect from exoplanets so close in), with a year only taking between 3 and 13 days.


But what needs to happen now? Well first the researchers behind the project need to write up a scientific paper to spread the word with other astronomers. But don’t worry, as a discoverer of the planets in this system you’ll be listed as authors.


Once that paper has been released, the next step will be to try to directly observe the system by turning other telescopes towards it. Some professional astronomers will try to do that, but unfortunately for them the sun is in the way at the moment. Once the sun moves (or actually the Earth moves further around the sun to reveal what’s behind), you can bet a huge number of astronomers will be studying your system very closely.


Despite you only finding 4 planets, they could not rule out there might be other planets in the system as well. So while they’re watching the planets closely and learning more about them, researchers will also be watching intently to see if the orbit of the fourth planet changes at all. If it slows down or speeds up slightly it could indicate there are more planets further out whose gravity is slightly changing the orbit of the fourth planet. This has been done before – it’s actually how Pluto was discovered in our solar system – Neptune’s orbit was being affected very slightly by something, and these changes could be used to predict the location of an extra planet. Sure enough, Pluto was exactly where the predictions suggested. Could the same happen in your new system?


The astronomers behind the project also think that your discovery could help them understand how planets and solar systems form. They’ll be studying the behaviour of your planets, and there could be a lot more interesting stuff to learn.


It wasn’t only the solar system that was discovered though. The group also discovered an exoplanet roughly the size of Earth only 400 light years away, and a planet 2.3 times the size of Earth 390 light years away. There were dozens of others ranging from the size of Earth up to Jupiter-sized planets.


What you’ve found is super exciting, and you’ve opened a whole new avenue for astronomers. That is really incredible. And if you were one of the people who didn’t find that solar system, that’s ok too, because as scientists we spend ages sifting through no-result data. The amount of data you went through would have taken a single researcher several years to get through… with no toilet breaks.


Exoplanet Explorers is still only 15% complete, so there is still the chance for you to jump back on and discover something else amazing.


Whether you were one of the people who identified these planets or any of the dozens of others, you can now look out into the universe and think “I found something out there. I’m responsible for knowing a little bit of the universe.” And that’s pretty damn cool.


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Image from exoplanetexplorers.org


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About the Author

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is the Editor of Australia’s Science Channel, and a contributor to Cosmos Magazine. He has worked with scientists and science storytellers including Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Robert Llewellyn, astronauts, elite athletes, Antarctic explorers, chefs and comedians. Ben has also been involved in public events around Australia and was co-writer, producer and director of The Science of Doctor Who, which toured nationally in 2014 in association with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand. Want more Ben? You can hear him on ABC and commercial radio in Adelaide, regional SA, across NSW, and the ACT. He also speaks at universities around Australia on communicating science to the public. Around the office he makes the worst jokes known to mankind.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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