WSU Researchers Predicted Astronomical Discovery

OGDEN, Utah – The astronomy world is abuzz this week with the National Science Foundation’s announcement that an earth-like planet has been found in the universe with a high probability for harboring life.

The news came as confirmation for two Weber State University astronomers, who had predicted the discovery more than a year ago.

WSU physics professor John Armstrong and recent WSU graduate Rhett Zollinger worked together on the Virtual Planetary Laboratory collaboration, which works to define and predict planetary conditions in advance of discovery.

Based on computations Zollinger and Armstrong did at WSU, they concluded that the star Gliese 581 “remains a good candidate for future detection of habitable Earth-mass planets.”

They published their findings in the April 2009 edition of the Astronomy and Astrophysics Journal, findings that were confirmed by this week’s announcement.

“One of our students predicted in 2009 the properties of the first earth-like planet around another star, and that planet has subsequently been discovered — with nearly the same parameters as the prediction,” said Armstrong. “In my book, that is pretty exciting, and illustrates exactly how science is supposed to work.”

Armstrong noted that it is very rare for undergraduate students to do this kind of work. Since graduating from WSU in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Zollinger has enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Utah.

Armstrong and a current team of students continue to be engaged in the Virtual Planetary Laboratory collaboration, which requires an extensive amount of computing support for the mathematical calculations required.

On Sept. 29, the National Science Foundation announced that a team of researchers had discovered a planet that circles the star Gliese 581, located 120 million miles away from Earth. The newly discovered planet was found in what is sometimes called the “Goldilocks” zone for life. Conditions on the planet are not too hot, nor too cold. The planet itself is not too far from its star, and not too close, so liquid water could exist. It’s also large enough, without being too large for the proper surface gravity and atmosphere. In other words, conditions are “just right.”

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Zollinger and Armstrong's abstract from Astronomy and Astrophysics Volume 497, Issue 2, 2009, pp.583-587

National Science Foundation's Press Release on Gliese 581 discovery


John Armstrong, assistant physics professor
801-626-6215 •

Rhett Zollinger, WSU undergraduate researcher

John Kowalewski, director of Media Relations
801-626-7212 •