Out of this World Over Exoplanets

Are we alone? In our solar system there’s only one planet that sustains life. And at one time that answered the question for many people. But scientists now estimate there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Galaxies that could be home to exoplanets. An exoplanet is a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system

In 2009, the first Earth-size exoplanets were discovered. Currently over 3,000 confirmed exoplanets have been found. However scientists believe just a handful are capable of hosting life as we know it. But there are many others out there yet to be confirmed and that’s where Mackenzie Kane hopes to assist.

Solving the puzzle of exoplanets

Kane graduated with her bachelor’s this year – as a dual major in Physics and Planetary Sciences

As the team leader for her student design project, she focused on the visual identification and characterization of almost 6,000 planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system by using the Kepler Space Telescope.

“Over 3,000 exoplanets have been found to date but many more have yet to be confirmed,” Kane said. “My project groups my visual findings with several different statistical findings and publicly available data on exoplanets into one location to inform researchers what planets have been found. What planets haven’t been found. And which ones are the next easiest to find.”

Kane says she was surprised by how many possible planets may have been overlooked due to the errors in data collection. She hopes her database can help.

“This project inspired me by being able to aid in the finding of many solar systems like ours elsewhere in our own galaxy,” Kane said. “These different systems show so much diversity that they can be a piece in the puzzle of how our own solar system came to be and how many of ours are out there.”

Kane was a star herself when her project, characterizing Exoplanets via Planet-Planet Interactions, won Best in Show in the Space Sciences division at the Northrop Grumman Engineering & Science Student Design Showcase at Florida Institute of Technology on April 7.


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