12:36 a.m. It’s past midnight on a school night. I couldn’t fall asleep. My wild, sleep deprived thoughts about the origins of the universe, deep space, and whatnot, whirl around in my mind, threatening to drive me a little crazy.
Like many others, I was shocked and disturbed by the extent and magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was sent into multiple existential crises is no understatement. In fact, I spent many nights pondering over how fragile life is, how easy it is for global populations to fall to disease, sickness, and other calamities. If the situation gets dire, and life on Earth is no longer possible, where would the human race go? Right now, there is no planet X.
Alas, there’s no use thinking about these things. I’m just a high school student; there is nothing I can do.
Around the same time that quarantine began, I was applying for summer camps. I was accepted into a research program under the guidance of a professor at the University of Florida who specializes in astronomical data processing and applications of deep learning. After our basic astronomy and computer science training, it was time to initiate our own research projects.
I knew what I wanted to study. My anxieties during sleepless nights, contemplating the existence of far away planets that could become humanity’s second home, could be alleviated by researching “Detection of exoplanet signals using a deep neural network.”
It was perfect!
I was one in a group of three, looking at NASA’s light curve data, which is basically plot after plot of weird spiky lines. Using machine learning, we sought to detect specific information that denoted the existence of an exoplanet. After seven rigorous and challenging months, our group, with the help of our professor and mentors, was able to detect four strong planet candidates around the size of Earth.
But we are still in our early stages of research; we are unable to confirm with complete confidence that they are really planets. However, the fact that these planets exist, and the fact that they are able to be uncovered by a group of high school students, gives me a sense of hope. Maybe the human race is not doomed to end here on Earth. Somewhere out there, there may be a planet X, and it’s just a matter of time before we find it.
If you are like me, spending nights worrying about the future of humanity, I hope my story eases your worries and shows you that there is a future for us, even if it’s not on Earth.
Submitted by Alina Yuan, Santa Clara County – Santa Clara.