Star Trek fan Michelle Kunimoto wanted to boldly go where other astronomers haven’t gone before—and just did.
Kunimoto, who grew up on original Star Trek and was fascinated by the uncharted galaxy beyond the Milky Way, has just made a discovery that even the crew of the USS Enterprise might have not thought possible. The 22-year-old college senior has unearthed four previously undiscovered exoplanets (planets orbiting stars outside our solar system) that weren’t even a blip on NASA’s radar. While there haven’t been any Klingon sightings, one of them could possibly spawn life.
The big bang happened after Kunimoto spent what seemed like light years examining NASA findings transmitted from its Kepler satellite as part of her coursework at the University of British Columbia. Launched in 2009, the floating observatory uses fluctuations in the brightness of stars to probe outer space for exoplanets. Stars become momentarily dimmer when planets pass in front of them. These micro-eclipses are called transits. Transits cause the intensity of a star’s brightness—its light curve—to dip. The larger the orbit of the planet, the harder light curves are to detect, which is why this discovery is (literally) so brilliant. Kunimoto had been scanning the Kepler data for exactly that when she zeroed in on several transits that astronomers had missed.
While still unofficial until their existence is confirmed, these planets-in-training have sparked a supernova of excitement. The smallest is comparable in size to Mercury, and two more are about the size of Earth, but the one that has generated the most buzz is the Neptune-sized KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) because its orbit is in a zone close enough to its star for liquid water to occur. Water could mean extraterrestrial life. “Warm Neptune,” as Kunimoto has nicknamed the celestial sphere, is 3,200 light-years from Earth but still more likely to be habitable than its namesake ice giant, whose inhospitable atmosphere is a deadly swirl of cold hydrogen, frozen methane and ammonia. Moons are another possibility worth exploring. Saturn’s ball of liquid methane, Titan, and frozen Enceladus are already in the spotlight (moonlight?) for conditions that could sustain alien organisms. It gets even more sci-fi when you consider that Warm Neptune could even be orbited by exomoons with liquid water oceans. "Pandora in the movie Avatar was not a planet,” observes Jaymie Matthews, the professor of physics and astronomy who is also Kunimoto’s advisor, “but a moon of a giant planet."
Matthews and Kunimoto have submitted their literally out-of-this-world discoveries to be published in the Astronomical Journal. Kunimoto, who will pursue her master’s degree in physics and astronomy at UBC in the fall, will keep studying Kepler observations for any more potential planets the spacecraft may reveal through light curves. The confessed Trekkie had a close encounter with the show that sent her exploring the final frontier when legendary Starfleet captain William Shatner publicly recognized her work. She suggested the exoplanets as future destinations for the Enterprise. Even a star astronomer can’t help fangirling in the presence of Captain Kirk.
“I got interested in exoplanets from Star Trek,” Kunimoto admits. “The whole theme of Star Trek, curiosity and exploration, is really important for the long, long, long term. We want to answer the age-old question: Are we alone?"