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Ohio State astronomers discover new planets

Courtesy of MCT

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For two Ohio State astronomers, finding two new planets was as challenging as finding a needle in a haystack.

“There’s a whole lot of hay, not very many needles, and the hay looks like the needles,” said Scott Gaudi, associate professor in the Department of Astronomy at OSU and part of the research team that discovered the new planets.

After more than a year of studying computer algorithms, Thomas Beatty, a doctoral student and graduate research associate at OSU, discovered two new planets with Gaudi and Robert Siverd, a former OSU graduate student and research scientist at Vanderbilt University.

The team announced their discoveries in a news conference on June 13.

Gaudi gave Beatty the credit for finding the planets because “this process of sifting through this hay involves writing algorithms.”

“I basically just tell him what to do and then he comes to me with really good candidates, then I get to vote on them,” Gaudi said. “I have the easy job … he has to do all the hard work of writing computer code to actually sift through all the hay.”

Siverd said Beatty and Gaudi have the mammoth task of managing the few hundred “maybe planets” and trying to figure out what they are.

“We’ve got a bunch of ‘maybes’ and a bunch of ‘maybes’ become a handful of ‘hoorays,'” Siverd said.

The team discovered the extrasolar planets, also called exoplanets using the KELT (Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope) North telescope located in Arizona. Exoplanets are planets that orbit a different star than the Sun. KELT-1b was found in the constellation Andromeda, and exoplanet KELT-2Ab was found in the constellation Auriga in the Milky Way Galaxy.

The robotic telescope, KELT North, was built by Joshua Pepper, a research assistant professor and fellow of the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data-Intensive Astrophysics while he was an OSU doctorate student.

Beatty and Siverd run KELT North and KELT South, located in South Africa, and program them to take pictures at night that are then processed at a later date. Every couple of months a hard drive is sent to OSU with pictures taken from the telescopes that are converted to a string of numbers. 

Both planets were found after Siverd converted a huge data set into something more manageable for Beatty to analyze.

Trying to find a planet like Earth is the driving force in the field of planet hunting, but Gaudi said it can be explained in simpler ways.

“The simple reason why we look for these planets is to try and understand how they relate to our solar system,” he said.

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