Stoke & Staffordshire

Staffordshire schoolboy discovers new planet

Media captionTom Wagg said it was "amazing" to have found the planet

A planet 1,000 light-years away has been found by a schoolboy from Staffordshire.

Tom Wagg, 17, a student at Newcastle-under-Lyme School, said he was "hugely excited" by his discovery.

He was 15 years old when he spotted the planet while doing work experience at Keele University and it took two years to prove its existence.

The planet does not have a name yet and a competition has been launched to find one.

Keele University's Professor Coel Hellier said Tom looked through an archive of data for "good planet candidates".

He searched through images of the night sky looking for tiny dips in light caused by a planet passing in front of its star.

Planet hunting

"It was just my third day when I spotted what looked a good candidate, but I had already gone through more than 1,000 sets of data by then," Tom said.

"It looks boring, but when you think about what you're actually doing it's amazing really."

While Tom hunted for planets, he said many of his friends had been completing very different work experience placements.

"They've all been really excited for me," he said.

Image copyright David A. Hardy/astroart.org
Image caption WASP-142b is 1000 light years away
Image copyright NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T Pyle
Image caption The Kepler telescope is completing a very similar mission, hunting for dips in light as distant planets pass in front of their stars

Prof Hellier said follow-up observations had to be carried out by telescopes in Chile to confirm Tom's results.

It was then studied by astronomers at the University of Geneva and the University of Liege, to prove that it had the right size and mass to be a planet.

Keele University is part of a nationwide collaboration of observatories called the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) and the planet has been given the designation WASP-142b, being the 142nd planet discovered by the group.

A competition is now on to name it and Tom said he planned to come up with a suggestion.

Analysis

Dr David Gregory-Kumar, BBC Midlands Today

Tom hasn't seen his planet directly through a telescope. Instead he combed through the data generated by WASP.

WASP is a swarm of telescopes that scan the sky several times a night. They build up a picture of how bright each star usually is. But sometimes that brightness dips slightly when a planet passes in between us and the star it is orbiting.

What astronomers using WASP then do is comb through the huge amounts of data the telescopes create looking for this tiny change in the brightness of a star.

This planet is relatively big, about the size of Jupiter, but astronomers are working hard to find much smaller, more earth-sized planets.

One day it may even be possible to find planets and then analyse the composition of their atmosphere.

Evidence of water or methane could suggest signs of life, while hydrocarbons might be a sign of pollution and even indicate advanced, industrial, alien life.

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