Astronomer makes out of this world discovery

An artist's impression of an exoplanet. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech
An artist's impression of an exoplanet. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

A TOOWOOMBA astronomer has made an out-of-this-world discovery and put the city's scientific credentials on the map.

As part of his work with an international and collaborative astronomical survey, Jack Soutter helped discover an exoplanet five quadrillion kilometres away.

The planet, which has the unromantic name of KELT10B, is orbiting a star in the telescopium constellation.

The planet is so far away that it was not detected directly, but rather through seeing tiny wobbles or winks in the light from the faraway star, KELT10.

The wink is caused by the planet blocking out the light of the star.

The discovery was made as part of the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope survey, with the 25-year-old confirming the planet's existence from the University of Southern Queensland's Mt Kent Observatory near Greenmount.

The planet is about 70% the mass of Jupiter and hugs its host star, orbiting about eight million km away.

Mr Soutter, a postgraduate student at the University of Southern Queensland, said helping to discover the planet was a huge moment for him personally.

"It's an amazing feeling. I didn't realise the scale of the discovery until later."

When the star is behind a planet, its brightness will seem to dim. Wikipedia
When the star is behind a planet, its brightness will seem to dim. Wikipedia

When a new planet is found scientists do high-quality follow-up observations to help confirm the discovery.

There are many things that can make a star behave oddly and scientists need to rule these out to confirm they have found a planet.

That's where Mr Soutter's work came in. Using a 70cm telescope at the observatory, he was able to confirm it was, indeed, a planet.

Associate Professor Jonti Horner, a USQ Senior Research Fellow, said the discovery had the international scientific community talking about Toowoomba.

"I'm hopeful that this will be the first of many discoveries to come from Mt Kent," he said.

Dr Horner's work could put him as a character on the X-Files; he searches for planets that can support extraterrestrial life.

"Our generation could be the first to answer the question of 'are we alone'?''

Diagram showing how a planet and a star orbit their common center of mass (red cross). Wikipedia
Diagram showing how a planet and a star orbit their common center of mass (red cross). Wikipedia

Discovering the new planet was no easy task, with the planet one billion times fainter than a star.

"It's like trying to see a moth flying around a lighthouse from a hundred miles away," Dr Horner said.

Dr Horner also analyses the orbits of planets and where they are in space, but his focus right now is on setting up the Minvera Australis observatory which will complement a site in Arizona.



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