Students find new planet by accident

Three students have accidentally discovered a giant new planet. The team were testing a program to analyse light collected from thousands of stars.

Artist's impression of the new planetBut they found a regular tiny dip in the brightness of one star that recurred every two and a half days.

Follow-up observations with one of the world’s largest telescopes show the fades are due to a fast-moving planet in orbit around the star in the constellation of Carina.

Every two and a half days it passed in front of a star for two hours, blocking the light in a similar way to an eclipse of the sun. It is a telltale sign also used by the SuperWASP project to find alien worlds.

The find is unusual because the star, labelled OGLE-TR-L9, is the fastest-spinning and hottest known to have a planet. The new world is five times bigger than Jupiter but lies scorchingly close to the star at just three per cent of the distance of the Earth from the Sun.

It has been given the unromantic name OGLE2-TR-L9b by astronomers. But the students – Meta de Hoon, Remco van der Burg, and Francis Vuijsje, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, have nicknamed it ReMeFra-1 after themselves.

Meta said: “It is exciting not just to find a planet, but to find one as unusual as this one. It turns out to be the first planet discovered around a fast rotating star, and it’s also the hottest star found with a planet.”

Remco said: “Our computer needed more than a thousand hours to do all the calculations!”

Their supervisor, Dr Ignas Snellen, said the discovery was a total surprise. He said: “The project was actually meant to teach the students how to develop search algorithms. I was completely taken aback!”

The team was allowed to use a giant European observatory in Chile to confirm that the brightness changes were made by a planet and not a small star or a failed star called a brown dwarf.

“We needed to resort to spectroscopy, and for this, we were glad we could use ESO’s Very Large Telescope,” said Dr Snellen. Another star in the OGLE catalogue earlier was revealed to have a solar system possibly resembling our own.

Picture: An artist’s impression of the new planet found by the student team (Picture: ESO).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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