Technology

This UBC grad has discovered thousands of likely planets across our cosmos

At 30 years old, Michelle Kunimoto already has more than 3,000 planet candidates under her belt.

Inspired by science fiction and curiosity, the University of British Columbia astronomy graduate is passionate about searching for exoplanets — bodies orbiting stars outside our own solar system.

She’s currently leading a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hunting for them. In 2024, Kunimoto will return to her alma mater as an assistant professor in UBC’s department of physics and astronomy.

“She is an excellent exoplanet hunter,” said UBC astrophysicist Jaymie Matthews of his former student. “Twenty years from now, Michelle Kunimoto will be a big name in exoplanets.

“When she started, the only science she knew was Star Trek. Now she is the real Spock.”

Kunimoto, of Abbotsford, B.C., told CBC News about her dream of discovering a habitable planet, one that could potentially host life in what’s nicknamed the “Goldilocks zone” where atmospheric conditions are just right.

WATCH | UBC graduate discovers more than 3,000 likely planets: 

UBC graduate discovers more than 3,000 likely planets

Astronomer Michelle Kunimoto explains how she uses data from NASA’s transiting exoplanet survey satellite to detect likely planets orbiting distant stars many light years away. The 30-year-old University of B.C. graduate has discovered more than 3,000 planetary candidates, and is set to join her alma mater’s astronomy faculty in 2024.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you find planets?

I use what’s known as the transit method.

The basic idea is as a planet’s orbiting around a star it might pass in front of that star and block a little bit of its light. 

We have a telescope that’s looking at the star, and measuring how bright it is over time. If we see a temporary decrease in the brightness of that star, that could be a planet blocking its light as it passes by. 

And if this happens to repeat, let’s say every year, then that’s a good indication it’s a planet that takes a year to orbit that star. 

Where do you get your data?

I use data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS mission…. It’s a telescope that’s up in space right now, looking at tens of millions of stars every month, measuring their brightness.

Two technicians in white protective sterile full-body suits work on a satellite in an indoor laboratory.
Technicians work to prepare NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) prior to its launch in 2018. TESS has led to the discovery of hundreds of confirmed exoplanets. (Submitted by Orbital ATK/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/CI Lab)

So how many exoplanets have you discovered?

I have found over 3,000 candidates at this point, and the TESS mission itself has found just over 7,000. 

It’s been the highlight of the work I’ve been doing.

What has to happen next to verify that they’re planets?

To confirm these, there’s typically a lot of work that has to be done.

Once we find a really good indication that we’ve got a planet, there’s followup from people around the world, and then you write a paper to describe all the results. That can take years of work.

At this point, about 56 of our candidates have been officially confirmed.

Could any of these planets host life?

The TESS mission has found two candidates right now that are potentially habitable, and similar to the size of the Earth. I was able to help identify those.

I’m still looking. That’s definitely a focus of my work.

WATCH | NASA explains the four types of planets outside our solar system:

Exoplanet names usually just have letters and numbers — but if you could name one planet, what would it be?

What I would do is look at the planets in science fiction — like Vulcan [from Star Trek] — and try to find the closest match of the candidates I found. Arthur C. Clarke [2001: A Space Odyssey] would be my favourite author from science fiction.

After finding thousands of likely planets yourself, is there one dream you have — the big ‘Eureka’ moment?

I would love to be able to find more of the potentially habitable planets … where we can eventually do things like potentially find signatures in the planet’s atmosphere that could indicate life exists on the surface of that planet.

To be directly involved with that type of research would be absolutely incredible.

What are you most looking forward to about being back at UBC?

It’s where I did both my undergrad and my PhD degrees. I love the department. I’m really looking forward to starting an exoplanet focus group at UBC,… really making UBC an attractive place for graduate students across Canada and the world to study exoplanets.

Do you have a ritual you do whenever you find a new planet? Or are you just like, ‘Oh, there’s another planet, add it to the list’?

I don’t really have a a ritual. But every one is still really exciting. I’m not tired of it. 

I always try to look at what’s the most interesting thing about each of the planets I find.

There’s actually about 10 of the candidates we found so far that turned out to be among the rarest planets ever found, really giant exoplanets — the size of Jupiter — that orbit stars significantly smaller than our sun. Theory predicts that they shouldn’t exist, and yet we’ve been finding many more of them. 

It reminds me why I really enjoy what I do.

An image of the milky way galaxy patched together from multiple satellite images, with only one major missing patch of the sky in the top left.
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) searches for planets orbiting other stars. (Submitted by Ethan Kruse/University of Maryland/NASA)

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