Searching for Alien Worlds at the Los Angeles County Science Fair

The search for alien worlds—humankind’s quest to find extrasolar planets orbiting far-off stars: it’s a huge task that captures the imaginations of millions. On March 22nd, Team Celestron had the unique opportunity to meet one of the scientists hunting for planets beyond the solar system, Cameron Chaffey.

Chaffey searches for planets using some very special tools, the French space agency’s CoRoT satellite and the Faulkes Telescope North, a research telescope in Hawaii.

From its position above the atmosphere, the CoRoT satellite identifies stars that are due for a potential planetary transit. Then, when the transit is predicted to occur, Cameron Chaffey images the star using the Faulkes Telescope.

“A star will get fainter as an exoplanet begins to transit the star.  This is because the planet blocks some of the light,” Chaffey explained in his research paper. “The light intensity of a star with a transiting exoplanet gets weaker as the exoplanet begins to enter the disk of the star.”

Chaffey carefully measures the apparent magnitude of the star, looking for the dimming and brightening pattern indicative of a planetary transit. If the data matches a transit, he’s discovered an exoplanet. If not, he reports back to the CoRoT team that the reading from the satellite was either a false positive or a binary star.

But there’s something we haven’t told you about this researcher: he’s in the ninth grade.

We met Cameron at an unlikely place, the Los Angeles County Science Fair. Cameron’s important work hunting for planets was the subject of his ninth grade science fair project. He analyzed the data from one suspected planetary transit and determined that there wasn’t a planet orbiting this particular star. But he hopes, one day, to discover a planet. 

This year, Team Celestron presented the first-ever Celestron Astronomical Studies Award to a student at the science fair. We certainly weren’t expecting to see a project as advanced or impressive as Cameron’s! We were delighted to present him with the award, along with a NexStar 130SLT telescope for backyard observing.

We had a great time meeting Cameron at the fair, and invited him to visit Celestron HQ for a VIP tour. While our telescope won’t help him discover planets, we hope it will provide him with hours of enjoyment. We look forward to his future discoveries!

-Andrea Tabor
Social Media Coordinator