News – Physics student finds new exoplanets twice as large as the earth

Space | New exoplanet

CBC News

Sunday 9 September 2018, 17:27 hrs – When Merrin Peterson started her master's degree in physics at the Université de Montréal last year, she could not have predicted that she would discover a brand new exoplanet in such a short time.

"It was very exciting," she said. "My supervisor likes to call it my planet, because I wrote the paper and I worked on it the most."

"But it was really a team discovery."

According to NASA, planetary objects around orbit around almost every star in the sky are visible to the naked eye.

These planets in orbit other stars than our sun are called exoplanets and they can occur in many shapes and sizes.

Some are frozen. Some are boiling hot. Depending on their proximity to their star, the neighbor can complete a complete job in a few days – marking the year of the exoplanet.

Peterson's exoplanet is called Wolf 503b. It is twice as big as the earth, but it only takes six days to get all around its own star.

The newly discovered exoplanet is about halfway the size of the earth and Neptune. (NASA / Goddard / Robert Simmon)

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Wolf 503b is approximately 145 light-years away from the earth and is located in the constellation Virgo.

So how did Peterson and her team from the Exoplanet Research Institute (iREx) find it?

In collaboration with assistant professor Björn Benneke, Peterson took data from NASA's Kepler telescope and ran it through a computer program to help identify potential exoplanets.

When searching for distant celestial bodies, it is almost a matter of looking for something that is not there, Peterson said.

"If you find it right away, you have discovered that something is blocking the star," she said.

Merrin Peterson, a student in physics, sometimes works from the Mont Mégantic Observatory. (Submitted by Merrin Peterson)

Based on that information, you can find the radius and mass of the exoplanets and calculate how long it takes for the exoplanet to orbit the star.

There are many exoplanets of the same size – indeed many of those found in the Milky Way with the help of the Kepler telescope of the last couple of years that in orbit around their stars are roughly equivalent to Wolf503b.

Because there are no planets of this size in our solar system, astronomers are not sure whether exoplanets such as Wolf503b are rocky or gaseous.

Many researchers in the field are motivated by the goal of finding what Peterson calls "an earth analogue", in other words, a planet that can support an atmosphere like ours and liquid water.

But for Peterson, whose interest in astrophysics was fueled as an undergraduate student at McGill, the chance to study these newly discovered pieces of the puzzle is enough reward.

"It's a booming area that makes people very enthusiastic about it, it's growing all the time," she said. "Most of us only want to study these planets better than they do now."

Details about the discovery were published this summer in the Astronomical Journal.

With files from Alain Labelle from Radio-Canada.

This article was originally published on

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