At just 15 years old, Tom Wagg discovered what astronomers only began to find 20 years ago — a planet far from Earth, outside of our solar system.
Wagg is one of the youngest to ever detect a planet, according to a press release from Keele University in England where he was working when he made his epic discovery.
In fact, Wagg’s new planet closely resembles some of the very first exoplanets ever identified in the mid ’90s that looked completely different from anything astronomers had ever seen and actually spawned a complete revision of how we think planetary systems form today.
The newly-discovered planet falls into a class of exoplanets called hot Jupiter’s. These planets are large like Jupiter but, unlike Jupiter, they orbit extremely close to their host star — closer than Earth’s distance from the sun.
At such cosy distances, these exoplanets can reach blazing temperatures over 1,000 degrees that are what put the “hot” in hot Jupiter.
Wagg’s exoplanet is located in a distant solar system within our home galaxy, the Milky Way, 1000 light years from Earth. It’s about the same size as Jupiter, but only takes two days to orbit its star. Jupiter, by comparison, takes 12 Earth years, or 4,272 days to orbit the sun.
If you look at the constellation Hydra in the night sky, you’ll be looking in the general direction of the planet’s home. Here’s a visionary sketch of what Wagg’s planet, which has yet to be assigned a name, might look like:
It’s the hot Jupiters’ combination of size and proximity that makes these types of exoplanets relatively easy to spot with today’s powerful telescopes through a common detection technique. This technique, which Wagg used, works by examining the amount of light the exoplanet blocks when it passes between Earth and the host star.
By graphing the amount of light Earth receives from the distant star, planet hunters will observe a dip — like in the example below — every time the star crosses over, or transits, the face of the star.
Since 2009, NASA’s famous Kepler Space Telescope has used this transit technique to detect thousands of potential exoplanets throughout the Milky Way, over 1,000 of which have been confirmed. But you don’t have to have a telescope in space to do this.
Case in point, Wagg discovered the exoplanet through the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) project, which combines the light collecting capabilities of small telescopes at universities across the UK. With these telescopes, the scientists who work with WASP generate thousands of light charts from stars across the galaxy.
“The WASP software was impressive, enabling me to search through hundreds of different stars, looking for ones that have a planet,” Wagg said in the Keene University press release.
Although this technique is a popular one for planet hunters, it’s not the most reliable because there are a number of other reasons for a dip in light intensity, such as a gas cloud, a white dwarf, or a glitch in the technology. That’s why it took two years of follow-up studies to confirm that Wagg’s planet was, in fact, a real planet.
Wagg is now 17 years old and has plans to soon attend college and study physics.
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