It’s been a big week for Michelle Kunimoto. Not only did she graduate from the University of British Columbia with a degree in physics and astronomy, she was also recognized by William Shatner for her planetary discoveries.
During her undergrad, the 22-year-old uncovered four new planets using data from NASA’s Kepler telescope.
For months, Kunimoto analyzed 400 data samples of “light-curves” — measurements of the brightness of stars over time — that had previously been overlooked. She was searching for evidence of a planet passing in front of a star, similar to the recent Mercury transit.
“When it passes in front of a star, there’s a subtle dip in the avbrightness because it blocks out some of that star’s light,” Kunimoto said in an interview with The Huffington Post Canada. “If it happens, say, every 30 days, you can make a good guess that it is actually a planet orbiting the star every 30 days.”
Michelle Kunimoto's discoveries are compared to planets in our solar system. (Photo: Michelle Kunimoto, Jaymie Matthews/UBC)
By examining these light-curves, she discovered four exoplanets, which are planets that exist outside of our solar system. Two of them are roughly the same size as the Earth, and one is similar to the size of Mercury.
The fourth planet is the one Kunimoto is most excited about. It’s slightly larger than Neptune, and is about 3,200 light years away. It exists in the “habitable zone,” which is a range of distances from a star where a planet can have liquid water on its surface. The temperature on the surface has to be between the freezing and boiling points of water.
She said that the planet is probably too gaseous to support life or have liquid water, but if there are moons orbiting it that are large enough to support an atmosphere, they may be able to support life.
“The most common reference is Pandora in the movie Avatar,” Kunimoto said. “It wasn’t actually a planet, but a moon around a giant planet.”
’I wanted to become a Trekkie’
In addition to the astronomy unit she did in Grade 9 science, her interest in exoplanets was sparked when her dad introduced her to the original Star Trek series.
“I wanted to become a Trekkie,” she said.
She also inherited a telescope — one of her most prized possessions.
Kunimoto’s discoveries are still in the “planet candidate” stage, meaning that they have yet to be officially confirmed as planets. She said that it’s very easy to mistake the signals, so she had to be careful and run a lot of tests. She’s confident that her Neptune doppelganger will be approved.
Although the work could be tedious at times, the payoff was worth it.
“You really feel like you’re on the road to some kind of discovery, and that’s exciting,” Kunimoto said.
Michelle Kunimoto met William Shatner during an event at UBC.
Discovering planets has other perks as well. On Saturday, Kunimoto met William Shatner of the original “Star Trek” series when he gave her a shoutout during a talk at UBC.
He mentioned her work while answering audience questions, saying that he had read an article about her discovery.
“That was completely unexpected,” Kunimoto said. “It’s not every day that Captain Kirk gives a shout out to your research in front of a full audience.”
This summer, Kunimoto is moving to Montreal to work on another exoplanet research project. She’ll be heading back to UBC in September to start working on her master's degree in astronomy.
This isn’t the first time that someone from UBC has discovered a new planet. In 2014, a group of astronomers, including one from the school, discovered the existence of a “Super-Earth.”
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In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, the Kepler-22b, a planet known to comfortably circle in the habitable zone of a sun-like star is digitally illustrated. For the first time NASA's Kepler mission has confirmed a planet to orbit in a star's habitable zone; the region around a star, where liquid water, a requirement for life on Earth, could persist. The planet is 2.4 times the size of Earth, making it the smallest yet found to orbit in the middle of the habit. Clouds could exist in this earth's atmosphere, as the artist's interpretive illustration depicts. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
In this handout illustration made available on December 5, 2011 by NASA, a diagram compares our own solar system to Kepler-22, a star system containing the first 'habitable zone' planet discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. The habitable zone is the sweet spot around a star where temperatures are right for water to exist in its liquid form. Liquid water is essential for life on Earth. The diagram displays an artist's rendering of the planet comfortably orbiting within the habitable zone, similar to where Earth circles the sun. Kepler-22b has a yearly orbit of 289 days. The planet is the smallest known to orbit in the middle of the habitable zone of a sun-like star and is about 2.4 times the size of Earth. (Photo Illustration by Ames/JPL-Caltech/NASA via Getty Images)
Artist's conception released by NASA of extrasolar planet HD 209458 b, also known as Osiris, orbiting its star in the constellation Pegasus, some 150 light years from Earth's solar system. Scientists have used an infrared spectrum -- the first ever obtained for an extrasolar planet -- to analyze Osiris' atmosphere, which is said to contain dust but no water. The planet's surface temperature is more than 700 Celsius (1330 Fahrenheit).'
Picture released 04 October 2006 by the European Space Agency shows an artist's impression of a Jupiter-sized planet passing in front of its parent star. Such events are called transits. When the planet transits the star, the star's apparent brightness drops by a few percent for a short period. Through this technique, astronomers can use the Hubble Space Telescope to search for planets across the galaxy by measuring periodic changes in a star's luminosity. The first class of exoplanets found by this technique are the so-called 'hot Jupiters,' which are so close to their stars they complete an orbit within days, or even hours. A seam of stars at the centre of the Milky Way has shown astronomers that an entirely new class of planets closely orbiting distant suns is waiting to be explored, according to a paper published 04 October 2006. An international team of astronomers, using a camera aboard NASA's Hubble telescope, delved into a zone of the Milky Way known as the 'galactic bulge', thus called because it is rich in stars and in the gas and dust which go to make up stars and planets. The finding opens up a new area of investigation for space scientists probing extrasolar planets - planets that orbit stars other than our own. AFP PHOTO NASA/ESA/K. SAHU (STScI) AND THE SWEEPS SCIENCE TEAM
Picture released 04 October 2006 by the European Space Agency shows an artist's impression of a unique type of exoplanet discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope. This image presents a purely speculative view of what such a 'hot Jupiter' (word dedicated to planets so close to their stars with such short orbital periods) might look like. A seam of stars at the centre of the Milky Way has shown astronomers that an entirely new class of planets closely orbiting distant suns is waiting to be explored, according to a paper published 04 October 2006. An international team of astronomers, using a camera aboard NASA's Hubble telescope, delved into a zone of the Milky Way known as the 'galactic bulge', thus called because it is rich in stars and in the gas and dust which go to make up stars and planets. The finding opens up a new area of investigation for space scientists probing extrasolar planets - planets that orbit stars other than our own. AFP PHOTO NASA/ESA/K. SAHU (STScI) AND THE SWEEPS SCIENCE TEAM
Scientist have found a new potentially habitable planet.
From the Spitzer Science Center. While astronomers have identified over 500 planets around other stars, they're all too small and distant to fill even a single pixel in our most powerful telescopes. That's why science must rely on art to help us imagine these strange new worlds. From Spitzer Space Telescope. Even without pictures of these exoplanets, astronomers have learned many things that can be illustrated in artwork. For instance, measurements of the temperatures of many "Hot Jupiters," massive worlds orbiting very close to their stars, hint that their atmospheres may be as dark as soot, glowing only from their own heat. While "Hot Jupiters" would be relatively dark in visible light, compared to their stars, their brightness is proportionally much greater in the infrared. Illustrating this dramatic contrast change helps explain why the infrared eye of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope plays a key role in studying exoplanets. As our understanding evolves, so must the artwork. Astronomers found a blazing hot spot on the exoplanet Upsilon Andromedae b that at first, appeared to face towards its star. More data has revealed that the hottest area is actually strangely rotated almost 90 degrees away, near the day/night terminator. WASP 12b is as hot as the filament in a light bulb, and would be blazing bright to our eyes. Most interestingly, if it proves to have a strongly elliptical orbit, as first thought, calculations show it would be shedding some of its outer atmosphere ...