Friday, 7 April 2017

Astronomy: Australian mechanic helps discover four-planet solar system

Andrew Grey, a 26-year-old from Darwin, took part in the Stargazers Live event broadcast on ABC
An Australian mechanic is about to become a published scientific author after he contributed to the discovery of a four-planet solar system during a crowdsourced astronomy event.
The four newly discovered planets are about 600 light years Earth and previously completely unknown to science.

Andrew Grey, a 26-year-old from Darwin, took part in the Stargazers Live event broadcast over three nights on the ABC this week.

The event called on budding astronomers to hunt for exoplanets amid the data observations of more than 100,000 stars by the Nasa Kepler space telescope, downloaded onto the Zooniverse website.

“The first night I jumped on, until about half past 12, and catalogued about a thousand on the first night. So I punched a few out,” said Grey.

Among his observations were four new planets, about 600 light years from earth and previously completely unknown to science.

He said it was “amazing” to be part of the event and to learn he would be listed as an author on the report which would be written about the important discovery. “It’s definitely my first scientific publication,” said Grey, who described himself as an “amateur astronomer”.

The data identified by Grey and others revealed four planets, all a little more than twice the size of Earth, orbiting a star about 90% of our sun’s mass.

“When you put all of that together, this is our system … in a very compact configuration,” said Professor Chris Lintott from Oxford University. “This isn’t like our solar system, these planets are very close together.”

Lintott said only a handful of solar systems similar to the one discovered were known, and its discovery could assist scientists in finding out how planets formed.

He said “resonances” visible in the different speeds of orbit of the four planets showed it was a stable system. “Even though they’re crammed together, their gravity won’t send them shooting off. It also means … we may find other planets out there.”

The discovery was the “most exciting” among more than 90 confirmed new planets during the crowdsourcing exercise, which involved more than 7,000 volunteers cataloguing points of interest among the enormous amounts of data.

The Exoplanet Explorers trawl through fresh readings from the Kepler telescope on the brightness of distant stars, and look for blinking patterns which signify a planet passing in front as it orbits.

The data was then analysed by scientific teams in multiple countries.

The closest planet, a “super earth” was found to orbit its red dwarf star every seven days, and a Jupiter-sized planet orbited its star every 24 days.

Professor Brian Cox, who hosted the three-part show alongside Julia Zemiro, said it was the most significant discovery ever made during a Stargazing Live event. “The results are a wonderful and intriguing surprise.”


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