School student who discovered exoplanet sees a future in physics

27 July 2015

Discovering an exoplanet while on work experience at Keele University has greatly increased school student Tom Wagg’s interest in studying physics and astrophysics.

Tom Wagg
Credit: WASP

Tom, a 17-year-old student at Newcastle- under-Lyme School, was 15 when he found exoplanet WASP-142b orbiting a star 1000 light years from Earth. His search for the most likely candidates to be exoplanets involved combing through data from the Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP) project on a computer screen, cross-checking with graphs to find dips in the brightness of stars as their planets transited them and finally examining images of the sky to double check.

“Your aim is to rule it out as an exoplanet rather than to find it,” he said. However, astronomers in Chile, Geneva and Liege carried out follow-up observations and two years later Tom’s results were confirmed. It is a Jupiter-sized planet in Hydra, a constellation visible only in the southern hemisphere. So far it just has a catalogue number – WASP-142b – but the International Astronomical Union is running a competition to name newly-discovered exoplanets, including this one.

Tom says it wasn’t too difficult to find the planet and believes anyone could have done it, provided that they had learnt the techniques and stayed centred on the task in hand. He found the experience “amazing”, he said. He has always been interested in physics and astronomy and now definitely wants to study physics at university and go on to specialise in astrophysics or particle physics.

He’s currently working during the summer at Keele, analysing data on planets that has not yet been published. Keele’s involvement in the WASP project is led by Prof. Coel Hellier.