Teenagers on work experience have just discovered a new planet

30 Jun 2016

While your typical work experience in secondary school usually sees you fetching coffees in a dull office, a group of 24 teenagers aged 15 to 17 have managed to discover their very own planet.

The teenagers from local schools and colleges in the Staffordshire area of the UK were at the Lennard-Jones building, part of Keele University, where they planned to work on a research project to discover exoplanets and to characterise eclipsing stellar binary systems.

Having sifted through reams of astronomical data, the 24-person team was excited to discover that it had identified one very-strong exoplanetary candidate out there in the cosmos.

About the same size as Neptune, with a 19-day orbit around a star similar to our own sun, this new discovery is located in the constellation of Virgo, approximately 800-light-years away from Earth.

The students made the discovery by examining thousands of precise measurements of stellar brightness taken every 30 minutes over a period of 75 days by NASA’s Kepler satellite observatory.

Project Tatooine

Despite not even being in university yet, the students’ discovery will now be part of Keele University’s research into exoplanetary systems and binary stars, with additional follow-up on the exoplanetary candidate to be done using the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands.

The work experience project, led by Prof Rob Jeffries, was part of an effort to connect these budding astronomers with this line of work through ‘Project Tatooine’, referencing the double-star planet featured in Star Wars.

Speaking of what this means for the students, Prof Jeffries said: “The project entailed the students rapidly assimilating a great deal of new knowledge about stellar variability and astrophysical measurements.

“They also had to practice and improve many transferable skills: team building, time management, information retrieval, communication and presentation, computing and problem solving.”

Exoplanet image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic