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UBC undergrad discovers four new planets

Graduating on Monday, astronomy student Michelle Kunimoto got a shout-out from William Shatner for her discovery.

University of British Columbia astronomy undergraduate Michelle Kunimoto, pictured here with a model of a space telescope, discovered four new exoplanets using "light curves" like those shown in the background graph.

David P. Ball / Metro Order this photo

University of British Columbia astronomy undergraduate Michelle Kunimoto, pictured here with a model of a space telescope, discovered four new exoplanets using "light curves" like those shown in the background graph.

When astronomy honour’s student Michelle Kunimoto graduates on Monday, she’ll do so already holding the honour of being a galactic pioneer with distinction.

The 22-year-old University of British Columbia undergraduate has discovered four new planets in the Cygnus (Swan) constellation, known as “exoplanets” because they’re outside our solar system.

“I got interested in exoplanets from Star Trek,” she told Metro in an interview in UBC’s physics department. “The whole theme of Star Trek, curiosity and exploration, is really important for the long, long, long term. We want to answer the age-old question: Are we alone?”

She spent months poring through 400 different data samples from the Kepler space telescope, which captures the curves of light from distant stars. Sudden dips in their light can correspond to planets passing in front of them.

Kunimoto likened her method to trying to hear one quiet voice in a crowded room full of loud talkers. But when she first noticed the faint but tell-tale dip, she didn’t allow herself get excited.

“I had to be very careful,” she explained. “I ran them through a lot of tests, but the more tests I ran, the more confident I felt.

“When they all passed the right tests, and I had these four planets remaining, that was really exciting!”

The planet she’s most enthusiastic about is called Kepler Object Of Interest 408.05, which she nicknamed “Warm Neptune,” because it’s roughly the size of its namesake planet, but is within the distance needed for the warm, Earth-like atmosphere needed to host life. It’s 3,200 light years from Earth.

Technically, what she found are still considered “planet candidates” until they can be independently confirmed, but for her UBC supervisor the results are clear.

“It’s rare that you have that ‘Eureka!’ moment any more,” astronomy professor Jaymie Matthews told Metro proudly. “Michelle’s discovery was time-consuming, and she’s done this for only 400 out of 150,000 light curves.”

But will Kunimoto’s “Warm Neptune” — located within what Matthews dubbed the “Goldilocks” zone of planets that are neither too hot nor too cold to support life — potentially be home to intelligent life?

“You can bet that once the results are confirmed and more widely disseminated, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute will put KOI-408.05 on their list of higher-priority targets to monitor,” Matthews said. “If there is life and signals we could eavesdrop on, these are the places they’d be coming from.”

On Saturday, Kunimoto got a shout-out before a large UBC audience from Star Trek star William Shatner, who praised her discoveries on stage. “I was really honoured!” she said. “That was completely unexpected, my face was going red.”

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