Soon, Wesleyan University may be able to list the discoverer of a planet among its alumni. Marshall Johnson ’11, a member of the Wide Angle Search for Planets (SuperWASP), an international academic organization, believes he may have discovered a new planet orbiting the WASP-33, a star 378 light-years away from Earth that was also discovered by a member of SuperWASP.
“This is very exciting,” wrote Astronomy Professor, William Herbst, in an e-mail to The Argus. “Not many planets are known (around 1000) and to discover one by this clever method, especially a small one not visible by other methods, would be very exciting.”
After observing the previously discovered planet, WASP-33b, Johnson noticed six transit time variations since July 2010. These periodic variations could be the effect of another planet on WASP-33b. This led Johnson to hypothesize about the existence of another planet in the same star system, which would be named WASP-33c. However, Johnson is still not entirely sure that WASP-33c exists, even if all of his data are correct.
“If [the data are] real, a lot more observations would be needed to say that this is indeed another planet,” Johnson said. “My observations suggest that there could be another planet in the system, but I’m far from sure.”
This hypothetical planet orbits WASP-33, a star that is part of the constellation Andromeda. The planet that Johnson observed, WASP-33b, which is roughly the size of Jupiter, orbits on a North to South revolution around the star, a trip that is estimated to take as little as 1.2 days.
“We think that planets can’t form that close to their host stars, particularly large Jupiter-like planets,” Johnson said. “So it may have formed further out from the star and migrated inwards in the early history of the system. So if WASP-33c does turn out to be real, it could say some things about how this migration occurred.”
For his work, Johnson was one of seven students awarded with the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement by the American Astronomical Society in January. He had also previously received a NASA Connecticut Space Grant of $4,500 for his work during the past summer, when he made the discovery.
Although Herbst did not view the discovery as groundbreaking, he thought the accomplishment was indicative of Johnson’s talent.
“Well, I’m not sure it will change the future of astronomy,” Herbst wrote. “But to discover a new planet…that’s something isn’t it? Not too many college students can say that! (No others, I’m sure).”
Johnson plans to continue studying astronomy next year in graduate school and hopes for a future academic career in astronomy at a liberal arts college similar to Wesleyan.