UT’s McDonald Observatory Key in Discovery of ‘Goldilocks’ Planet

The news about the existence of a possibly habitable earth-like planet blew up yesterday, after being announced at a NASA conference in Moffett Field, Calif. The New York Times, CNN, Time Magazine: everyone’s talking about this monumental discovery of our planet’s “twin.”

What you may not know after reading those top news sources is that our very own McDonald Observatory played a key role in the discovery of the “Goldilocks” planet.

A team that included grad student Paul Robertson and UT research scientist Michael Endl utilized the observatory’s Harlan J. Smith telescope to look for transit signals, or small changes in a star’s light that may indicate the passing of an undiscovered planet. It was their job to rule out any other possible causes of these changes in light.

Thanks to their work, the Kepler mission uncovered a planet, known as Kepler-22b, that has roughly 20 times Earth’s mass and 2.4 times its radius, making it the smallest planet ever found in a habitable zone—the ideal distance from a central star that allows it to hold water, and possibly, life as we know it.

The astronomers of the McDonald Observatory will present their findings at the first-ever Kepler Science Conference this week at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

To date, McDonald Observatory astronomers have vetted approximately 400 stars, including Kepler-22b.

Artist rendering courtesy of NASA’s Ames Research Center JPL-Caltech.


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