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Algonquin native, Jacobs High School grad discovers exoplanet that could have evidence of life

ALGONQUIN – An Algonquin native has discovered an exoplanet that could have evidence of life beyond Earth. 

Jason Dittmann, a 2006 Jacobs High School graduate, was working as a graduate student at Harvard University when he found the exoplanet – a planet that orbits a star outside the solar system. 

“We think that it’s the right distance from the star that the surface, or what it’s like on the planet, could be pretty similar to what we experience on Earth,” Dittmann said. 

A team at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics determined the exoplanet is about 11,000 miles in diameter, or about 40 percent larger than Earth, according to a news release from the center.

The exoplanet, named LHS 1140 b, is surrounding a star about 40 light-years away from Earth, which is a short distance when looking at the entire Milky Way galaxy, Dittmann said. 

The transit method was used to find the exoplanet, which involves looking at places where a star dims as a planet crosses in front of it, as seen from Earth, according to the release.

In 2014, researchers at Harvard saw the first hint of the exoplanet when their telescopes saw the planet pass in front of its star; however, at the time no one realized what they saw was an exoplanet, Dittmann said.

It wasn't until about a year later when Dittmann made the discovery by again looking at data collected by telescopes, he said. It took about a year after that to solidify the discovery, and there’s still more work to be done, Dittmann said.

“This was just the beginning,” Dittmann said. “We know that we found the planet – and that was hard – but we know it exists now, and so the next step is to really try to detect its atmosphere and see if it’s similar to the Earth.”

To help determine the exoplanet's atmosphere, it will need to be studied by telescopes that haven’t been launched yet, Dittmann said. The James Webb Space Telescope will be launched in 2018, and a Giant Magellan Telescope, which is under construction, could be used to help study the exoplanet, according to the release. 

Educated guesses have been made about the exoplanet’s atmosphere, but researchers will search for water and molecular oxygen on it to see if it is habitable, Dittmann said. 

Dittmann said he will be continuing his research as a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he started in February. Previously he served as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard.

When he was in high school, Dittmann said he took as many physics and chemistry classes as he could.

“Jacobs provided a lot of opportunities for him. He just really needed to be motivated to go for them,” Jason's father Joseph Dittmann, of Algonquin, said. 

One of the teachers Dittmann credits for his interest in science is his AP Physics teacher Phillip Timm.

Dittmann was an exemplary student who was always asking questions and staying involved in extracurricular activities, Timm said via email. 

“He seemed to have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge,” Timm said. “… I consider it a privilege to work with students of his caliber.”

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