Nasa discovers planet with the help of British student

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The Independent Online
A BRITISH student who was given a telescope at the age of 10 by his parents has helped American scientists to find an undiscovered planet orbiting a distant star.

Kevin Apps, a 25-year-old undergraduate at the University of Sussex, told the Nasa (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) team working with the giant Keck telescope in Hawaii that it was wasting its time looking at certain stars and should concentrate its efforts on another set of stars, one of which hasbeen shown to have a planet.

"I checked the stars against a catalogue I got on a CD-Rom from the European Space Agency and found they were not suitable for a planet search," he said. "The guys in America just hadn't noticed themselves because they were too busy perfecting their techniques."

Mr Apps, who is taking a degree in astrophysics, drew up a shortlist of the 30 stars most likely to possess planetary systems, one of which did.

"I checked the colour of the stars to see if they were of a similar temperature and brightness to the Sun.

"I then worked out their composition to see if they had the right elements. It took some time but it has paid off," Mr Apps said.

The American team offered to check his shortlist with the Keck telescope. "It's the world's largest telescope and very few professionals get to use it- only a dozen or so in the world.

"So for an amateur like me, to get his stars on it is amazing. I was over the moon," Mr Apps said. Geoffrey Marcy, professor of science at San Francisco University, and Paul Butler, an astronomer at the Anglo- American Observatory, said they could not have made the discovery without Mr Apps's help.

"He used the latest satellite data, sifted out the stars that would have the best likelihood of harbouring planets. He shows a fierce interest in this research. It's great to have him as a colleague," Professor Marcy said.

The US team also found a second new new planet orbiting another star, which brings the total number of planets found outside our solar system to 12. The research is published under joint names with Mr Apps.

The two latest planets were detected by monitoring the gravitational "wobble" exerted on their stars. Neither of the two new planets, however, is likely to support life, as they pass too close to their suns.

The astronomers are trying to find Jupiter-sized planets further away from a star than the one discovered with Kevin's help.

''Jupiter-sized planets at greater distances from their star would suggest a solar system that could host a rocky, Earth-like planet," Marcy said.

"Make no mistake about it, what we're all about is discovering planets where evolution might have gained a toehold."