By Kathy McGrath
Former Centennial resident Patrick Dorval has made a scientific discovery that is out of this world! Or more precisely, out of this solar system. Last spring, the 26-year-old astronomer discovered a planet larger than Jupiter and about three times as heavy.
He made the discovery while working with a team of researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands where he is pursuing a PhD in astronomy. Using high-tech instruments to scan the skies, Patrick detected a signal that indicated something had passed in front of a star located outside our solar system. More specifically, he detected a dip in light, which suggested something blocking the star.
“When we see a signal like that, it almost always turns out to be other stars or asteroids or gas clouds,” Patrick explained on a recent trip home to visit family. “In this case, the dimming of light was happening again and again and again, which suggested an orbit.”
Further investigation revealed the surprising discovery of a large planet. More precisely, it’s an exoplanet because it’s located outside our solar system (but still within our galaxy).
Patrick led the team to conduct more research on the exoplanet’s size and weight. While they haven’t been able to directly image the exoplanet due to the blinding light of the nearby star, other teams of international astronomers have conducted independent observations that confirm Patrick’s findings.
“It’s very exciting because we only know of a couple thousand planets, so each one brings something new to the table,“ he said. “This one is significant because of its size, being 1.3 times larger than Jupiter, and because it is really, really close to a star.”
Since the exoplanet’s surface temperature is 2,500 degrees Celsius, it is unlikely to sustain life. “If there is life, it’s unlike anything we know,” said Patrick.
Following a tradition to name planets after the main instruments used to find them, this one has two names: Mascara4b and bRing.
Later this month, Patrick will travel to Chile where he’s secured time on a sensitive instrument that will help him learn about the major elements of the exoplanet’s atmosphere. Fortunately, Chile’s mountains offer a great spot to do observations.
“The earth’s atmosphere is messy with wind and clouds, so it’s ideal to be as high up as possible,” he said. “The air is also less dense up in there.”
As a child, Patrick attended St. Brendan Catholic School where he remembers attending stargazing events organized by his teacher, Mr. Coady. “Mr. Coady actually started my interest in astronomy,” recalled Patrick. “He had his own telescope and on clear nights would encourage us to stargaze.”
AfterGrade 6, Patrick, who loved maths and sciences, attended De La Salle College, a private Catholic school near Avenue Road and St. Clair. He then attended the University of Toronto as a physics major, but found himself taking more and more astronomy courses.
“I really made the full transition (to astronomy) in the summer of my third year,” he said. “A professor asked me to work with her over the summer, which I did, and by the fall, that was it! I was sold!” Patrick finished U of T with a major in astronomy and a specialist in physics.
Following his undergrad, Patrick attended Leiden University, located between Amsterdam and The Hague, where he focused exclusively on astronomy and physics. He is still at Leiden, halfway through a PhD in astronomy, focusing on exoplanets and planets in general.
It’s unclear what path Patrick will take when he completes his PhD. Despite his important finding, he says an academic career is very competitive. Wherever he ends up, we know Patrick will have his eyes firmly set on infinity and beyond!