UCF has been credited with the recent discovery of an exoplanet, smaller than Earth, orbiting a fairly nearby star. A project that began in fall 2010 led to this discovery, which is of great significance to many organizations and people in the UCF community.
UCF’s first exoplanet, UCF-1.01, is approximately 33 light-years away orbiting a red dwarf star in a different solar system. The term exoplanet refers to a planet outside of the Milky Way.
What’s notable is that the exoplanet is approximately two-thirds the size of Earth. These are more difficult to find than Jupiter-sized planets, Yan Fernandez, associate professor of physics and astronomy and observatory director at UCF, said. This is an important achievement that will affect astronomy students in future courses, Fernandez said.
“By extension, this is going to eventually tell us about the possibility of life beyond Earth and our solar system. … It’s been very, very difficult to find planets that are the size of Earth,” Fernandez said. “So we’ll definitely be talking about this in our courses in the context of solar system formation and planet formation in general. We’ll also be talking about it in the context of understanding how to interpret data from telescopes. After all, the discovery required a lot of really careful data analysis; it was by no means an easy discovery.”
The discovery of UCF-1.01 was actually unplanned, recent UCF doctoral graduate Kevin Stevenson said. Stevenson was one of the planet’s discoverers and the lead author of the paper.
“We were performing follow-up observations of the hot-Neptune exoplanet GJ 436b already known to exist in that system,” Stevenson said. “We found a spurious signal that could not be explained by GJ 436b, so we started searching the Spitzer archival data to find more evidence, which we did.”
Stevenson and several colleagues worked on the data but were not alone in their efforts.
“We also had help from astronomers all over the globe who had access to data that helped strengthen our discovery or who performed an independent analysis to confirm our results,” Stevenson said.
With the discovery of the planet quickly gaining national news recognition, Stevenson reminds the UCF community that this is a very significant discovery for the university.
“It brings recognition to UCF, the physics department and, in particular, the Planetary Sciences Group, which formed less than 10 years ago,” Stevenson said.
The implications of this discovery extend far past any sort of tangible acknowledgment on this planet.
“This discovery definitely helps us come closer to understanding the frequency of Earth-sized planets,” Fernandez said. “Also, we want to learn how often Earth-sized planets occur in habitable zones around their stars. Earth is in the Sun’s habitable zone, but how often does that happen? Were we just really lucky, or is it common? So the more Earth-sized planets we can find, the better we can do at addressing this question.”
Since it is summertime and not many classes are going on, it has been difficult to spread the news to students, Fernandez said. However, despite the season, the news has managed to spread to students in the UCF community. For example, its significance to students can also be explained by Fatholah Salehi, a second-year doctoral student studying physics.
“Especially for the students here, it’s a big deal to discover new planets,” Salehi said. “I’m not an astronomy student, but they can know many things about the solar system by discovering new planets and know more about the origin of the solar system. They can know more about how the universe was made diverse.”