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Student Astronomer Spots Two New Planets Using AI

Planet spotting is not an easy job. Astronomers have to make their way through humongous amounts of intricate data so that they are able to discover new planets. That is why when a student at the University of Texas at Austin found two exoplanets, everyone was impressed! The team was working in collaboration with Google and was led by undergraduate Anne Dattilo.

The team made use of artificial intelligence (AI) for finding two hidden planets in the Kepler space telescope archive. The planets discovered were from the Kepler’s extended mission, known as K2. Andrew Vanderburg, team member NASA Sagan fellow at UT Austin, said, ‘K2 data is more challenging to work with because the spacecraft is moving around all the time.’

Why is it so? The data that was collected during Kepler’s extended mission K2 became the victim of a mechanical failure that the spacecraft endured. The data was corrupted as a result. In order to tackle this problem, Dattilo and her team developed a new algorithm that hunted for signals that had been missed by other methods.

Vanderburg said, ‘AI will help us search the data set uniformly. Even if every star had an Earth-sized planet around it, when we look with Kepler, we won’t find all of them. That’s just because some of the data’s too noisy, or sometimes the planets are just not aligned right. So, we have to correct for the ones we missed. We know there are a lot of planets out there that we don’t see for those reasons. If we want to know how many planets there are in total, we have to know how many planets we’ve found, but we also have to know how many planets we missed. That’s where this comes in.’

The two planets that were discovered by Dattilo’s team are typical of planets that were found in K2. Dattilo said, ‘They’re really close into their host star, they have short orbital periods, and they’re hot. They are slightly larger than Earth.’ Just to be sure that the planets are real, the students made use of two ground-based telescopes; the 1.5-meter telescope at the Smithsonian Institution’s Whipple Observatory in Arizona and the Gillett Telescope at Gemini Observatory in Hawaii for studying the host stars.

Dattilo believes that this particular AI method can be used for the Kepler’s successor planet-hunting mission, TESS. The newly discovered planets are called K2-294b and K2-293b. The first orbits a star 1,230 light-years away in Aquarius and the second one orbits 1,300 light-years away. The discoveries will be published in the next issue of The Astronomical Journal.