Sunday, October 21, 2012

S'porean helps to find new unusual planet

Mr Jek using a telescope to look at the transit of Venus earlier this year in his backyard in San Francisco. Together with an oncologist from Arizona, he helped to discover PH1, which is about 5,000 light-years from Earth and is the first-known planet to be orbitally linked to four suns. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF JEK KIAN JIN

A CALIFORNIA-BASED Singaporean is one of two amateur astronomers credited with finding an extraordinary new planet that has four suns.

Former President's Scholar Jek Kian Jin, 53, along with an American, helped professionals from United States space agency Nasa and Yale University discover PH1, the first-known planet to be orbitally linked to four suns.

The other amateur is Mr Robert Gagliano, an oncologist based in Arizona.

Soon after PH1's discovery made the headlines at an annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Nevada a week ago, it was nicknamed Tatooine after the two-sunned planet of Star Wars fame.

The research that led to the ground-breaking find began in December 2010 when Mr Jek, an IT consultant who lives in San Francisco, joined the Planet Hunters group.

The project, which the planet is named after, enlists volunteers to analyse publicly available data from the US$600million (S$732million) Kepler telescope.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the phone yesterday, Mr Jek recalled how he spent hours studying graphs to hunt for telltale dips in brightness that indicate a planet moving past its sun.

It was a marriage of his passions for computers and the stars, and a way to escape waiting outdoors for a clear sky in a city where the temperature can dip into the single digits.

"More and more astronomy is done using computer software," said Mr Jek, who was involved in starting Singapore's first Internet server, which held government information services, in the early 1990s. "Previously, I always had to rely on telescopes and clear skies, but now I can make sense of computer data."

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), the new find is a circumbinary planet, or a planet that orbits two stars.

Only six other circumbinary planets are known to exist, and PH1 is orbited by two more distant stars, making it the first known quadruple sun system.

The planet is about 5,000 light-years from Earth, has a radius six times that of Earth and is slightly bigger than Neptune.

The discovery, Mr Jek said, shows the power of bringing together professionalastronomers, amateurs and computers.

"No matter how well the software is designed, it can still miss something," said the Cambridge University molecular biology graduate.

After he and Mr Gagliano, 68, detected the probable planet, their data was passed to astronomers at Nasa and Yale, who confirmed the find using a large telescope in Hawaii.

The whole process took more than a year as the planet's existence had to be verified three separate times for absolute certainty. Each time, the wait came to 138 days, the time it took for PH1 to complete a single orbit.

Mr Jek, whose father is Old Guard minister Jek Yeun Thong, picked up astronomy as a child after an uncle taught him how to probe the night sky. He loved the stars so much that he would have chosen astronomy as his profession, but, half in jest, he said "it was not something any respectable Singapore citizen would do".

"Everyone ends up as a doctor or engineer," he quipped.

He moved to the US in 1997 with his wife and three sons after completing his scholarship bond and working in the IT and multimedia fields. His eldest son, 18, is serving national service now.

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