BHS Senior Helped to Discover Four Exoplanets

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Jasmine Wright at Harvard’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory

At just 18 years old, Bedford High School senior Jasmine Wright has helped discover four exoplanets, giving her the opportunity to co-author a peer-reviewed paper for a scientific journal and gain acceptance to two universities in the United Kingdom.

The astonishing discovery was made possible by an internship program that pairs up high school students with scientists from Harvard and MIT for year-long research projects.

As part of Wright’s internship, she used MIT’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) to collect data on the fluctuating brightness of certain stars in order to determine what planets pass them in orbit.

According to Wright, exoplanets are “essentially the same” as planets, the only difference being that exoplanets are found outside of our solar system.

Wright described TESS as a satellite with a camera-like telescope that takes pictures of the galaxy while also measuring the brightness of stars. She was able to discover the four exoplanets by calculating how often the stars would dim in brightness, which signifies a planet passing by them in orbit.

“If you think about how our solar system works, when a planet is passing in front of a sun then you’ll notice that the sun dims a little bit,” Wright said. “That’s what we used to initially indicate if there was a possibility of a planet being there.”

After collecting data and observing trends for about four months using the NASA-funded satellite, Wright and her partner, a student at another high school, were able to pinpoint the system they found.

The two began writing their discovery paper in February of 2020 before submitting it in April for peer-review by other astronomers and astrophysicists who ensured the data was correct. Wright’s findings were finally published in The Astronomical Journal last week.

“It takes a lot of time, and patience, and research to be able to actually say, ‘Oh, this is a planet,’” Wright said. “It’s all really exciting.”

Alan MacRobert, Bedford astronomer and senior editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, said the discovery was “not simple,” and “only made possible” by NASA’s TESS satellite. MacRobert said that Wright’s “sophisticated work paid off.”

Wright has been passionate about astronomy for a while now. “I’ve loved it ever since I was about seven years old,” she said, recalling how learning about moon phases and planets in elementary school first sparked her interest in the subject.

In high school, Wright decided that she wanted to make a career out of her passion — something that looks promising now. She’s already been accepted to two different astrophysics programs at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland and The University of York in England.

“I actually never expected to find a multiplanetary system and write a paper on it,” Wright said. “I never expected it to go this far.”

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