Former Armagh Student Discovers Moon-Sized Exoplanet

Image1
This image shows the relative size of the three newly discovered
planets around Kepler 37.
(Image Courtesy of NASA).

Image2
An Artists impression of the newly discovered exo-planet Kepler 37b.
(Image Courtesy of NASA).

Click on image for larger version.

Dr Tom Barclay who studied at Armagh Observatory for three years as a post-graduate student funded by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, has led a team of astronomers who have detected the smallest extra-solar planet, or exoplanet, yet found around a star like our Sun. The planet was discovered using data taken using NASA’s Kepler satellite, which is leading the hunt for planets around other stars. The planet, called Kepler-37b, is slightly larger than our Moon, measuring 0.30 times the size of Earth. Astronomers don't think the tiny planet has an atmosphere or could support life as we know it, but the moon-size world is almost certainly rocky in composition.

The host star, Kepler-37, which is slightly less massive than our Sun, has two other planets. Kepler-37c is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.74 the size of Earth, and Kepler-37d, the third planet, is twice the size of Earth. The planets reside in a system called Kepler-37, approximately 212 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. A "year" on these planets is very short. Kepler-37b orbits its host star every 13 days at one-quarter the distance Mercury is to the Sun. The estimated surface temperature of this "fried" planet, more than 430 degrees Centigrade (800 degrees Fahrenheit), would melt zinc.

"We uncovered a planet smaller than any in our solar system orbiting one of the few stars that is both bright and quiet, where a signal detection was possible," said Thomas Barclay, Kepler scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute in Sonoma, California, and lead author of a new study published in the journal Nature. "This discovery shows that close-in planets can be smaller as well as much larger than planets orbiting our Sun."

Tom studied at Armagh Observatory between 2008 and 2011 under the supervision of Dr Gavin Ramsay and was awarded his PhD by University College London in 2012. After leaving Armagh he took up his present position working at NASA Ames Research Center in California. "The Observatory is very proud of Tom’s achievement in finding this tiny exoplanet. We all look forward to more exciting results from Tom and Kepler!" said Gavin.

The paper, "A sub-Mercury-sized exoplanet", was published by Nature on Thursday 21st February 2013.

Armagh Observatory receives core funding from the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL).

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION PLEASE CONTACT: Gavin Ramsay at Armagh Observatory, College Hill, Armagh, BT61 9DG; Tel.: +44-(0)28-3752-2928; Email: garat signarm.ac.uk or Tom Barclay thomas.barclayat signnasa.gov.

Last Revised: 2013 February 21st