Teen finds Exoplanet
At 15, British student may be the youngest person ever to discover another world
A student in England may be the youngest person ever to find a planet.
Tom Wagg discovered the planet orbiting a star far beyond our solar system. He was just starting a weeklong internship at a local university. “I got trained on the first day and found it on the second,” he tells Science News for Students.
Wagg’s planet is for now named WASP-142b. It is an extrasolar planet, or exoplanet. These are planets that orbit stars other than our own sun. So far, more than 1,000 such worlds have been discovered. The planet is about 1,000 light years from Earth. It orbits a binary star located in the constellation Hydra.
“It is remarkable. It makes me embarrassed. Tom is already so far ahead of where I was as a 15-year-old,” says David Kipping. He is an astronomer at Harvard University and was not connected to the discovery. “We have an astronomy superstar in the making.”
Tom, now 17, found the planet two years ago while doing an internship at Keele University, near his hometown of Newcastle-under-Lyme in England. Keele University in England just announced the teen’s achievement on June 10.
This university is part of the Wide Angle Search for Planets, or WASP, collaboration. The project is one of the leaders in discovering extrasolar planets.
“Tom is keen to learn about science, so it was easy to train him to look for planets,” says Coel Hellier. Hellier is an astrophysicist. He leads the WASP project at Keele.
WASP works by monitoring millions of stars. When an extrasolar planet passes in front of its star, the star’s brightness dips slightly. (That passage is called a transit.) Tom was poring over data collected by the project when he spotted such a dip. This initial discovery took professional astronomers two more years to confirm.
WASP-142b is about the same size as Jupiter. Since the planet is so large and its host star is very bright, WASP-142b likely will be subjected to many more follow-up observations, says Kipping.
“I expect astronomers will be looking at Tom’s planet in the future and trying to measure its atmosphere,” Kipping adds. The planet completes a full orbit of its star every two days. That frequency will give astronomers lots of opportunities to observe WASP-142b as it crosses the face of its star. Observations of the light shining through the planet’s atmosphere could help to reveal its composition.
Tom’s discovery is “a testament to the accessibility and appeal of looking for planets,” Kipping says.
Tom still has another year of school before he heads off to university. He hopes to study physics at Oxford University or another school in England. n