This 22-Year-Old Found Four New Planets, Including a ‘Warm Neptune’

One planet could conceivably host a moon with life.

Kate Lunau

Kate Lunau

Image: Martin Dee/University of British Columbia

Michelle Kunimoto grew up watching the original Star Trek, which is how the University of British Columbia undergrad, who is 22, first got interested in distant planets.

As part of her coursework, she started analyzing data from the Kepler space telescope—and she just discovered four previously unknown exoplanets (planets that orbit stars other than our own sun), including an intriguing "warm Neptune" that, one can imagine, might host a moon that could even support life.

"I was given light curves from Kepler that scientists had already gone through," Kunimoto, who is originally from Abbotsford, BC, told Motherboard. By looking for evidence of transits in the data—winks in a star's light that suggest a planet has slipped in front of it—she found signals for planet candidates that had previously been overlooked.

"Two of them are roughly the size of Earth. One is Mercury-sized. And the last one is slightly larger than Neptune," she said. "The Neptune one is most exciting."

The sizes of the four new planets, shown to scale beside the planets Mercury, Earth and Neptune in our own Solar System. Image: Michelle Kunimoto, Jaymie Matthews /UBC

Its orbit is 637 days, she said, and it's in the "habitable zone" of its host star, which means that temperatures there could support liquid water at the surface.

Now, no liquid water could actually pool on an ice giant like Neptune, which is the most distant planet from our sun (that title used to belong to Pluto, until it was demoted from planet status in 2006). But a planet like this could conceivably host a habitable moon, like Pandora in Avatar.

"We don't think of ice giants like Neptune and Uranus as of interest for life," said Jaymie Matthews, a professor of physics and astronomy at UBC, and Kunimoto's supervisor. These aren't small rocky planets, like Earth, where lakes and oceans can form. "Neptune is a massive planet with lots of cold hydrogen, frozen methane, ammonia—not the kind of place you can land on."

"If Neil Armstrong had tried to set foot on the surface of Neptune," Matthews continued, "it would have been one giant leap for mankind because he'd sink through the cloud tops and be crushed by the pressure."

So, there's probably no life on this warm Neptune that Kunimoto found—at least, no life as we know it. "But in our own solar system," Matthews said, "Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all have extensive moon systems. They're like a miniature solar system."

Some of those moons have been raised as candidates for hosting life, like Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn, or Titan, which has liquid methane at the surface and a thick atmosphere.

"We still haven't detected any moons around exoplanets," said Matthews, who is an advisor on the Kepler mission. "We will. We're moving towards that kind of sensitivity."

Finding planets like this distant "warm Neptune" is a start. Eventually, scientists will be able to scour it for exomoons.

As for Kunimoto, whose research has been submitted to the The Astronomical Journal, she's hoping to keep studying exoplanets (she's in her final year at UBC).

To celebrate her work, she got backstage tickets to a centennial celebration at the university on Saturday, where she met a hero. William Shatner was there as the speaker.