Over the Moon for Maritza Soto, the Millennial Chilean Astronomer

Maritza Soto, a Chilean-born astronomer, is not only making headlines but also making history for discovering not one, not two, but THREE planets. And as if that isn’t impressive enough, she accomplished all of this by the age of 28. That’s right, two years before her 30th birthday and she has already discovered more than most astronomers can hope to discover in a lifetime.

Soto was born and raised in Chile, and she spent her childhood enamored with and mesmerized by the stars, the solar system and all things astronomy. She read encyclopedias for fun (imagine!), and her daydreaming about planets and space became more of a full-fledged obsession once her parents bought her books on science and astronomy. She went on to study the subject, getting her Ph.D. in Science at the University of Chile. And it was while she was studying for her Ph.D. that Soto made her first big discovery. At the time, she was only 25 years old. We shudder to think of what we were doing and what we had accomplished at that age, but it’s safe to say it wasn’t nearly as impressive or universe-altering as what Soto discovered.

In 2015 Soto Discovered a Planet Three Times the Size of Jupiter

At the ripe age of 25, as a student studying Physical and Mathematical Sciences at Universidad de Chile, Soto made a big discovery. And when we say big, we mean big. As in, she discovered a planet three times as large as Jupiter. For anyone who doesn’t truly fathom what that means, Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system. It is two and a half times bigger than all the other planets combined. Its diameter is 11.2 times larger than Earth, and it would take more than 1,300 Earths just to fill up the volume of Jupiter. So when we say that Soto discovered a planet three times bigger than Jupiter, we’re talking about a massive discovery.

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Now, considering just how big this planet is, you might be wondering “how is it possible that no one else ever discovered this huge planet?” and we’re right there with you. And ironically, this planet, located some 290 million light years away from Earth, was actually discovered by accident.

The discovery began when Soto and her team were studying a giant red star in another planetary system. Soto explains that it’s actually pretty shocking to find a planet orbiting such a star. “Only one of five planets that are known orbits around this kind of stars,” she explained. But despite the rarity or the microscopic likelihood of a planet orbiting that star, Soto and her team continued their work.

They conducted research on that giant red star using two telescopes at the La Silla observatory in Chile, in an effort to study the formation of planetary systems. They used the radial velocity method, which measures the star movement that occurs when there is an object orbiting it, in combination with other data that had been collected by other astronomers between the years 2004 and 2011. According to Soto, that data was archived in the database of the European Southern Observatory. Her team looked at that existing data, re-examined it, and then “we realized that there was a planet that wasn’t supposed to be there, or at least, one that nobody saw until then,” she explained.

The data analysis took almost eight months, and ultimately the planet became known as HD 110014c, located a mere 320 light years away from Earth. The findings were published back in 2015 in the science magazine Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “One dreams of being able to make a concrete scientific discovery, and knowing that I discovered another planet which is now registered is something very important for me,” Soto explained in a Reuters interview at the time of this discovery.

One Planetary Discovery is Impressive, But Three is Insane

Discovering one planet is more than most astronomers accomplish in a lifetime. It’s the dream and the ultimate goal so many scientists work towards throughout their entire career. Soto did it when she was just 25. And then, at the age of 28, she’s done it again. No, we’re not kidding. And this time Soto didn’t just discover one, but two planets. And no, this round of discoveries wasn’t an accident.

Soto is now a postdoctoral student at the Queen Mary University of London, studying exoplanets, or planets that exist outside this solar system. The research that led to the discovery of these two new planets was also published in Monthly Notices from the Royal Astronomical Society of London, with Soto listed as the primary author.

Soto and her team of Chilean researchers found that these two planets, called “hot Jupiter” planets, are similar to Jupiter in that they have short orbital periods of less than 10 days, and because they orbit close to the parent star they have very high surface temperatures. In addition, these two new planets are known as “inflated planets” because they are gaseous planets that appear to expand in size as a result of heat from the parent star. Once the heat penetrates the planets, the planets seem to inflate like a balloon. According to Soto, “both planets are predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium,” and that composition combined with the intense heat causes these planets to appear much larger than they should be based on theoretical models.

Soto added that this discovery isn’t just a huge deal because it uncovered two planets that we previously did not know existed, but more importantly, “the main contribution of research is that it provides evidence of the survey of planet inflation, which is a phenomenon seen on many planets (called “hot Jupiter”), but we still can not fully understand.”

If you’re still a little confused or we might as well be speaking gibberish, then here’s the important takeaway: Soto’s discoveries will change the way astronomers and scientists study the formation of planetary systems for this generation and generations to come.  

Soto Hopes to Inspire Other Latina Girls to Pursue Science

Soto’s discoveries are hugely impressive, and have the potential to change the way we study planetary formation and discover other planets in the future, but her goals are much bigger than that. Yes, in the future Soto hopes to find other planets of lower mass and to study the atmosphere on those planets. But she also has personal goals of how her work can impact future generations of female scientists. Especially considering where she came from and what she has achieved to date.

It’s no secret that there are far fewer women in science, and that is especially true of female minorities. Women make up a fairly small percentage of all researchers and scientific fields, and that number goes down even more for Latina women and women from South American countries. According to a recent report from UNESCO on Women in Science, there is a gender gap in science. Women account for less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers. As of 2016, only 33.1 percent of all scientific researchers in Chile were women. While Soto may have made her first big scientific discovery by a happy accident, she’s definitely not letting her success or newfound fame go to waste.

“Nobody ever told me I could not do it…but few women dare,” Soto said in a 2016 interview. She continued to say; “I think that it’s important for girls to explore science if they are interested in it. They might discover that they want to pursue it or later change their minds. But I think it’s important to give everyone the same opportunity.”

In a 2015 interview with BBC Mundo, Soto explains that it took a lot of time, effort and perseverance to get where she is today. “It was a difficult road, but I found that I had the faculties to do it and that I could do it…it wasn’t such a farfetched thing. It’s possible to be an astronomer in Chile, so I decided to take my chances and follow this path.”

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