Dad Who Helped NASA Discover New Planets Nurtures Son's Interest in Space

A dad who helped NASA discover two new planets as part of a public science project has said he wants to nurture his son's interest in space.

Cesar Rubio is a California-based machinist who participates in the NASA-funded Planet Hunters TESS project.

The project recruits citizen scientists from around the world to help pore over data from NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, which is designed to peer into space and find evidence of other worlds.

Last month, Rubio and more than a dozen other citizen scientists were credited as co-authors in a scientific report published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society outlining the discovery of two new planets that orbit a distant star called HD 152843.

Rubio said in a statement that his seven-year-old son Miguel also shows a passion for the cosmos. "I try to nurture that," he said.

NASA said in a statement: "Now, the boy can claim his father helped discover planets, too."

NASA's TESS satellite works by staring at individual stars to measure their brightness. This brightness varies over time, and the resulting measurement is known as a lightcurve.

This lightcurve can give scientists clues about whether the star has planets orbiting it, because when a planet passes in front of the star it causes it to become a tiny bit dimmer. This shows up as a dip in the lightcurve.

Scientists have developed computer algorithms that can automatically detect these dips to help find planets more efficiently. However, these algorithms aren't perfect and can sometimes be confused due to the complexity of planetary systems and variability of stars.

Planet Hunters TESS states on its website: "Human brains, however, are excellent at detecting patterns that automated routines may miss, and that is why we need your help!"

Citizen scientists are therefore encouraged to view TESS data and flag up dips that they see.

The two planets that were discovered in May are estimated to be much more massive than Earth. One, named planet b by NASA, is thought to be about 12 times the mass of our planet and the other, planet c, around 28 times as massive. More data is needed to confirm their mass.

Scientists think the two discovered planets are likely to be too hot and gaseous to support life, but the discovery is still useful because it helps researchers know more about the range of planets there are.

Their nearby star, HD 152843, is thought to be around the same mass of the Sun but 1.5 times as big and also a little bit brighter.

An artist's depiction of the exoplanets orbiting HD 152843. Planets can be detected in space by measuring the brightness of stars. NASA / Scott Wiessinger