DHS senior recognized

DHS senior recognized for discovering new planet
Posted on 02/03/2020

DANBURY, CONN. — Danbury High School senior Alton Spencer’s interest in stars and planets has outgrown our universe. In fact, the 17-year-old student is now being recognized as one of the researchers who recently discovered an exoplanet that is potentially habitable and roughly the size of Earth.

 Using information from advanced satellites, specifically NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), Alton estimates that this exoplanet – 100 light years away –  is orbiting a parent star with a radius and mass 40 percent of the sun and which is relatively 2 percent as bright. He also estimates that TOI-700d is about 18 percent bigger than Earth, has an orbit lasting only 37.4 days and receives 93 percent as much sunlight. He draws estimates based on the planet’s transit, a tiny dip in starlight caused when it eclipses its sun. Sensitive telescopes record the brightness over time in a light curve, where the transits can be identified.

 According to a NASA website, “The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system, including those that could support life.” TOI-700d was found to be 22 percent larger than Earth and get 86 percent as much sunlight, close to Alton’s original estimates and making it likely to be rocky like Earth and cool enough for liquid water.

 Though he pursues his research independently, Alton’s advances have led to opportunities to work collaboratively with professional scientists. In July, Alton was invited by astronomer Andrew Vanderburg to work with a team of astronomers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on transit proposals for NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope to confirm the signal of TOI-700d was real. NASA accepted the proposals and the team received transit data for an observation of the exoplanet in October and again in January. As a result of the data gathered, three research papers were published and Alton was credited as a co-author on one of them.

 For as long as he can remember, Alton has wanted to study astronomy and said by eighth grade he knew he wanted to focus his career on researching exoplanets and planetary systems. He has spent the majority of his time independently discovering and analyzing exoplanetary systems through various research methods as a citizen scientist. For Alton, it means utilizing data gathered by NSAS’s Kepler/K2 and TESS telescopes to find exoplanets.

 When he isn’t discovering exoplanets and calculating data, Alton is in school and says his favorite class this year is AP Environmental Science. He is also a member of the school’s robotics club, which he finds is an avenue to connect with other students outside of the classroom. He hopes to attend MIT after his graduation from DHS in June.

 “I never knew that Alton dabbled in astrophysics when he’s not in the robotics lab,” said DHS teacher and Robotics Team adviser Erik Savoyski, who described Alton as low key and cerebral. “Although I expect great things from all of my graduating team members, I believe Alton’s contribution to this world will be out of sight, literally.”