DANBURY, Conn. — Since 1995, the number of known planets outside our solar system has gone from zero to more than 4,000. It’s estimated that there are over 1 trillion planets in our galaxy alone. A high school student from Connecticut can now say he discovered one of them.
Alton Spencer is a senior at Danbury High School and is certainly no freshmen when it comes to searching the skies above.
He told us, “My interest in exoplanets really solidified in the 8th grade. Through some research of other planets, I found out about Planet Hunters.”
The “Planet Hunters” Alton is referring to is a NASA program associated with TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), which searches for Earth-like planets outside our solar system. They’re collecting so much data that NASA has started to utilize the assistance of the public to check their work. It’s an initiative that has grown in popularity with the increase in data, and it’s called citizen science.
“Citizen science is essentially members of the public contributing to the science the way I have done it.”
In the spring of 2019, Alton was sifting through the data and found what he realized was a previously miscategorized planet. With the help of MIT scientists (among other experts), he wrote a proposal for NASA to confirm his findings.
“Data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has confirmed without a doubt that TOI-700d is a legitimate planet.”
They confirmed the finding by observing a transit of the planet, which is a slight dimming of the star's light as the planet passes in front of it.
“It’s 102 light-years away,” Alton told us, and that translates to nearly 600 Trillion miles in distance!
TOI 700-d has the potential to be a very important discovery for humanity.
It’s located in an orbit around its star that gets the right amount of sunlight to put it in the habitable zone. Nicknamed the “Goldilocks Zone”, planets in this area are not too hot, not too cold, but just right to potentially sustain liquid water, and possibly life forms.
Just where is this planet? Well, unfortunately, it can`t be seen with the naked eye. You need a telescope, and you also need to be in a different hemisphere. TOI 700 is found in the constellation Dorado, which is something you won't see in Connecticut's sky.
Alton told us, “Sadly no. You have to go down to the very southern tip of South America, South Africa or Australia to see it.
So is Alton looking to turn his head start on planet discovery into a career? I asked him what his plans are for the future.
“To do this (discovering planets)… that’s the driving force for the places I’m selecting for college.”