A professor and two undergraduate students at the College of Charleston recently discovered a planet that is 170 lightyears away and 13 times the size of Jupiter. What did you accomplish as an undergrad?
Technically, the planet's name is Kappa Andromedae b, after the very young star Kappa Andromedae that it orbits. But Laura Stevens, one of the two students who helped find the planet, prefers to call it Derek. "I really hope the name catches on, because 'Kappa Andromedae b' is kind of a mouthful," Stevens says.
CofC professor Joe Carson, who led the team that discovered Derek, estimates that the star itself — which is two-and-a-half times the mass of our sun and, relatively speaking, "a neighborhood star" in the Milky Way — is only about 30 million years old, or younger than the dinosaurs. (Our own sun, for comparison, is about 5 billion years old.) The planet is probably the same age, he says.
Of course, the first thing that cretin reporters at non-scientific publications ask is whether the planet could support life. Probably not, says Carson, since Derek is a hot gas giant like Jupiter, "although I would think that moons around this kind of planet would be an excellent place for life to form." No moons have been found around Derek yet, but our fingers are crossed.
In serious astronomical circles, the discovery of Derek is significant for a number of reasons. One is that Carson and his team observed the planet directly, using infrared imaging to see the warm thermal glow left over from its formation. Of the 850 planets that have been identified outside of our solar system to date, most have been detected using indirect methods.
The other reason Derek is a big deal has to do with primordial circumstellar disks. Basically, when a star forms, a ring of dust and gas often forms around it, and that ring can give birth to new planets, asteroids, and comets. The discovery of Derek suggests that planets can form within that ring even if the star it surrounds is two-and-a-half times the mass of our sun.
"We think we might be looking at something like a scaled-up version of our own solar system," Carson says.
Then there's the matter of who discovered the planet. Carson says it's unusual for undergraduates to do the sort of work that Stevens and her classmate Thea Kozakis are doing. Stevens, a biology and astrophysics student from Charlotte, is a fifth-year senior at CofC — and probably glad she stuck around.
Carson and the students are participating in an international search for extrasolar planets, using data from Japan's 8-meter Subaru telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Carson has traveled to see the telescope in person, atop the snowy peak of the state's tallest volcano, but all of their data for this discovery was accessed remotely and analyzed on computers on the ground floor of CofC's Rita Hollings Science Center. The modern astronomer, it turns out, doesn't stay awake all night hunched over and squinting through a lens.
"We pretty much just spend the day running the images through the code, making sure the code doesn't crash, and looking at the images when we're done," Stevens says. "It sounds really boring, but it's really cool, I promise."
As for that nickname — Derek — Stevens says it came to her and Kozakis at their friends' wedding (neither of their friends was named Derek, by the way). "At the reception, we were talking about how we needed to come up with a suitable name for the planet, and the name 'Derek' was thrown out, and at that moment, we knew that the planet was destined to be Derek," Stevens says.
Carson agrees: The multi-colored ball in the images looks a lot like a Derek. "It's probably similar to how most people pick the names of their kids," he says.