UBC astronomer helps discover new planet

UBC astronomy and physics professor Jaymie Matthews recently contributed to the discovery of a new planet light years beyond our solar system.

Matthews, a principal mission scientist for Canada’s first space telescope, directed the investigation which confirmed the existence of a "Super-Earth" planet 2.5 times the size of Earth and 12 times its mass. The planet, officially named HIP 116454 b, is 180 light years beyond Earth.

The Super-Earth could be “a miniature version of the ice giant Neptune,” said Matthews, as it orbits close to its star.

The planet could alternatively be more Earth-like, made of three-quarters water, though not necessarily in liquid form. “This would be the more exciting possibility,” said Matthews, “giving more hope that if there are other planets [in that solar system] they will have water ... one of the criteria for potential life.”

According to Matthews, it's highly likely for the team to find more planets orbiting the Super-Earth's star.

“Multiple planet systems are very common, and if you find one planet it’s unlikely to be the only one there,” said Matthews, “especially if it’s something comparable to Earth in size.”

This discovery opens the possibility of finding life beyond Earth. Even though the newly-discovered Super-Earth is not within the habitable zone relative to its star, meaning that it is not at the optimal distance from the star to be able to sustain liquid water, “it would likely have planetary neighbours and one does not have to go much farther out to get into the habitable zone [of that solar system],” said Matthews.

Diana Dragomir, a research scientist at Las Cumbres Observatory in Santa Barbara, adds that the atypical clarity this planet offers for observation places it among the top six most conducive to research of almost 2,000 confirmed planets.

Matthews and his team gathered data with MOST, the Microvariability and Oscillations of STars satellite from August 3 to October 5 to help American researchers confirm inconclusive hints from the Kepler telescope. Kepler serendipitously gathered the data during an engineering test in April, and could not return to tracking the exoplanet’s part of the sky due to technical constraints.

MOST detected the dimming of the star’s light as the exoplanet passed between it and Earth. The MOST telescope thus observed two of the Super-Earth’s transits as it orbits through the satellite’s line of sight every 9.1 days -- a year’s time in HIP 116454 b.

Dragomir will attempt to observe the planet again on Tuesday from a network of telescopes on the ground to decrease the margin of error on the exoplanet’s transit period, as it will soon be out of sight until next fall.

With over 5,000 stars under the belt, this microsatellite the size of a suitcase has helped Canada “punch above its weight class in space science,” said Matthews.

Federal funding cuts in September 2014 prevent the low-budget satellite from continuing independent operations. “If we could go back to our autonomous operation of MOST where the science team makes the decisions on targeting we’d go back to [this solar system] in September,” said Matthews.

“Now that we know there is one planet there we can concentrate our efforts to detect additional planets,” said Matthews. There is a high probability “one of them might fall in the habitable zone.”