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UC grad, Newport Central Catholic alumnus made a discovery that's out of this world

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Posted at 7:57 AM, Jul 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-20 16:12:09-04

CINCINNATI -- A newly-discovered planet with three suns is making international headlines this month. While the unique planet is about 320 light-years from Earth, the first-year Ph.D. student who discovered it hails from right here in Greater Cincinnati.

Northern Kentucky native Kevin Wagner, a 2011 Newport Central Catholic High School grad and recent University of Cincinnati alumnus, made the discovery using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. He is part of a team of astronomers, led by the University of Arizona, that’s working to directly image planets around other stars in the galaxy.

Kevin Wagner, a Northern Kentucky native who just wrapped up his first year in the University of Arizona's Ph.D. program, recently spotted a new planet with three suns. Photo provided

Wagner identified the planet –– called HD 131399Ab — as the team was conducting a survey of about 100 stars. They are trying to build a census of giant planets in wide orbits.

The newly discovered planet is similar to Luke Skywalker's home planet, Tatooine, a strange world with two suns in the “Star Wars” saga. The planet is in the constellation of Centaurus.

It’s about 16 million years old (making it one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date), has a temperature of around 580 degrees Celsius and an estimated mass of four Jupiters. 

HD 131399Ab — Wagner agrees it needs a cooler name — is the first planet ever found in a wide orbit inside a triple-star system. Wagner's discovery is also the first time an exoplanet has been found with SPHERE, a powerful instrument that is part of the Very Large Telescope.

Translation: It’s a big deal.

And for Wagner, who just wrapped up his first year in the University of Arizona’s Ph.D. program in astronomy and astrophysics, the discovery is a colossal achievement at an early stage in his career.

“The discovery of this planet would have been a monumental achievement at any point in my career, and I’m extremely lucky that it occurred so early for me,” Wagner, of Park Hills, wrote in an email from Chile. “There are dozens of excellent astronomers, many more talented than myself, who have been pursuing this goal for decades to no avail.”

He shared his findings as first author of a paper the group published in the academic journal “Science” on July 7, and news outlets around the world picked up the story.

The high-profile result will certainly boost recognition and future career prospects for Wagner. But in true scientist fashion, he’s more interested in what it means for future research opportunities.

His goal is to be part of the first scientific search for alien life — and it’s not a far-fetched idea. His group of planet-hunters is part of the Earths in Other Solar Systems team. The program is part of NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, which is a coordinated effort to bring scientists who study exoplanets and astrobiology together.

Wagner said several teams work together to answer questions like how planets form and evolve and which locations are best to search for life. 

He said NASA will be conducting another survey in 2020, and one of the expected outcomes is a call for a large space-based telescope to be able to study the atmospheres of other planets for signs of life. 

That’s why the work Wagner and his colleagues are doing right now is so significant.

“Directly imaging exoplanets is important work because, unlike the majority of indirectly discovered exoplanets so far, direct imaging provides immediate details about the planet — e.g. brightness, position in orbit, color, etc.,” Wagner wrote. “This allows us to learn a greater amount of details about planets that we directly image, and will eventually allow us to probe the atmospheres of these worlds for signs of life.”

For now, Wagner and his colleagues are continuing the survey from Chile where the team will keep a close watch on the planet. The unique orbit of such a planet was expected to be unstable, but somehow it survived. 

“We really know of no other world in such a strange orbital configuration, so this is our first and so far only opportunity to learn more about planetary systems like this," Wagner said.

He said the team's understanding of the planet and its orbit will improve as the team continues its studies. 

"Right now we only have estimates based on where we see the planet," Wagner said. "But once we’ve observed enough motion to determine its trajectory, we will be able to say more about where it formed in the system, how it got to its present orbit and how long will that orbit be stable."

The planet has caught the attention of astronomers and laymen alike, said John Ventre, historian at the Cincinnati Observatory.

Wagner’s work is of particular interest locally, where the young scientist left his mark during his undergraduate days at the University of Cincinnati, Ventre said.

Wagner volunteered at the observatory starting in 2011 and continued until he left town last July for graduate school. Ventre, who served as volunteer coordinator at the observatory at that time, said Wagner was a guest favorite.

“He’s a very bright guy and was always very personable,” Ventre said. “We couldn’t be more excited for him.”

UC professor Mike Sitko, Wagner’s first mentor, describes his former student as “an overachiever.” As a freshman, Wagner conducted research with the physics and astrophysics professor, and the duo continues to collaborate.

“Kevin is a high-energy guy and what he’s been able to accomplish in such a short amount of time is amazing,” Sitko said. “He’s already contributed so much in this field.”

Wagner’s love of astronomy started when he was a kid.

He said his mom, Lisa Stamm, read books to him about black holes and other exotic astrophysical realities before he could read on his own. He also loves the outdoors and is an avid rock climber — despite his vast travels, Kentucky’s Red River Gorge remains his favorite place to climb.

He said he sees astronomy as an extension of his passion for exploration and adventure.

Kevin Wagner, pictured here at 6 years old wearing a "space suit" he made himself, has loved astronomy ever since he was little. Photo provided

“During time off I enjoy exploring our own planet, but while working I get to explore planets around other stars,” Wagner wrote in the email. “I really can’t think of a more exciting job, and even hesitate to call it ‘work,’ despite putting in over 100 hours some weeks.”

Wagner also shared these thoughts with WCPO:

On his hometown: Cincinnati really is a historically important astronomy town.

“The Cincinnati Observatory was once the flagship observatory of the U.S. and is still the oldest functioning professional observatory in the country. It’s where I first started working with telescopes. The poor sky conditions, unfortunately, have changed this status and caused observatories to be built elsewhere (like Arizona and Chile), but astronomy is still going strong at UC and the Cincinnati Observatory. It’s even possible to indirectly observe exoplanets from the 14-(inch) telescope on campus. I’d love to see more professional astronomers coming out of the Cincinnati area, and hope that my work can inspire some of those to keep the tradition (which started in the 1800s) alive.”

On space exploration films: SciFi is doing an excellent job of keeping excitement rolling for aspiring scientists.

“Films like 'Gravity,' 'Interstellar,' 'Star Wars,' etc., while certainly fictitious at present, remind me that we live in a really exciting time — along the lines of how Carl Sagan said it, this is the first moment in human history where we’re setting foot into the cosmic ocean. Sometimes I’m disappointed that I wasn’t born a few hundred years earlier, when I could have been part of exploring the extent of our own planet for the very first time; but then I remember that we still have so much to explore, and that until recently all that we’ve ever known has happened on this one planet. I like to think of space exploration as an extension of 'manifest destiny,' which a couple hundred years ago propelled Americans to extend to across the continent. Now, I’d like to see humanity extend across the solar system, and eventually to other star systems in our galaxy, and maybe even other galaxies. Whether we’ll overcome these challenges remains to be seen, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

On the study of astronomy: For aspiring scientists, real research is the best teacher.

“There is no substitute to doing real research, where the answer and process to figuring out the problem is uncertain. Classes and textbook problems can provide a solid foundation of established scientific knowledge but is in no way as preparing as doing real science. I worked on planet-formation research at UC for four years, which allowed me to get started right away on my research as a graduate student … I would most strongly encourage aspiring scientists to get started on research as soon as possible, and to be truly passionate about the work they’re doing. It really helps to have a good mentor. I was lucky to have Mike Sitko at UC as my first mentor. Dr. Sitko taught me so many things about being a scientist, and most of what I know about astronomy and astrophysics.”