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High schoolers help discover 4 new alien planets

Artist's illustration showing NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) hunting for alien planets. A team that includes two high schoolers recently used TESS data to discover four exoplanets.
Artist's illustration showing NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) hunting for alien planets. A team that includes two high schoolers recently used TESS data to discover four exoplanets. (Image credit: NASA)

This could be the start of two brilliant scientific careers.

Two Massachusetts high schoolers — 16-year-old Kartik Pinglé and 18-year-old Jasmine Wright — have helped discover four new alien planets, a new study reports.

Pinglé and Wright are the second and third authors on the discovery paper, which was published online Monday (Jan. 25) in The Astronomical Journal. They did their otherworldly work via the Student Research Mentoring Program (SRMP) at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which links up local high school students with scientists for year-long projects.

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"By the end of the program, the students can say they've done active, state-of-the-art research in astrophysics," SRMP director Clara Sousa-Silva, a cosmochemist at MIT, said in a CfA statement

Pinglé and Wright worked with Tansu Daylan, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and the lead author of the new paper. Daylan and his colleagues — the study has dozens of co-authors — scrutinized observations of the sunlike star HD 108236 made by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

TESS hunts for alien worlds via the "transit method," noting the tiny but telltale dips in stars' brightness caused when orbiting planets cross their faces from the spacecraft's perspective. The team confirmed four such planet-caused dips in the light curve of HD 108236, which lies about 200 light-years from Earth.

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"I was very excited and very shocked," Wright said in the same statement. "We knew this was the goal of Daylan's research, but to actually find a multiplanetary system, and be part of the discovering team, was really cool."

Three of the four newfound worlds are gaseous planets slightly smaller than Neptune. The fourth is a super-Earth, a rocky planet a bit larger than our own, the researchers said. All four exoplanets lie very close to HD 108236; their orbital periods range from just under four Earth days to 19.5 Earth days. 

For perspective: Our solar system's innermost planet, Mercury, completes one lap around the sun every 88 days.

The newfound HD 108236 worlds are intriguing and worthy of further study, Daylan said.

"Our species has long been contemplating planets beyond our solar system, and with multiplanetary systems, you're kind of hitting the jackpot," he said in the same statement. "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. So, we would like to understand the fundamental processes of planet formation and evolution using this planetary system."

Daylan also said he enjoyed working with Pinglé and Wright, who were paid four hours per week for their work via SRMP.

"They are salaried scientists," Sousa-Silva said. "We want to encourage them that pursuing an academic career is enjoyable and rewarding, no matter what they end up pursuing in life."

Pinglé and Wright may well keep going down the scientific path. Pinglé, a junior, is thinking about studying applied mathematics or astrophysics after graduation, according to the CfA statement. And Wright has been accepted into a five-year-long Master of Astrophysics program at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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