When he was 3 years old, Brian Wu was already obsessed with the universe. His earliest memory is playing with a puzzle of the solar system — breaking apart and putting together pieces that included all nine planets — Pluto was still considered a planet back then.
Throughout elementary school, Wu was reading magazines about space and sketching hypothetical rocket designs for his fictitious space agency in his notebook.
“As I grew up through elementary school I became really interested in space flight,” he said. “I would go to the library and check out every book about space flight until the library said there were no more space books for [me] to read.”
The Scarsdale resident is now 17 and a rising senior at Horace Mann School in the Bronx. His devotion to the universe and space flight has paid off — he was awarded a $10,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for his project on the first-ever discovery of a circumbinary planet using a process called Doppler spectroscopy. The planet, which Wu estimates is around 400 light years away, resembles the fictional desert planet Tatooine, which was popularized in George Lucas’ 1977 space saga “Star Wars.”
“One of the most iconic scenes in the original ‘Star Wars’ film is that of the binary sunset, which is when Luke Skywalker walks out on Tatooine and he sees two suns in the sky,” said Wu. “That was a very memorable moment for me because obviously seeing a planet with two suns is something very rare.”
Wu’s discovery of the real-life version of Tatooine started during his freshman year of high school. While reading an online astronomy magazine Wu came across an article by a University of Florida professor who had discovered a binary-binary system — a system that includes two stars orbiting around each other with a planet and a brown dwarf orbiting around one of the stars. Enthralled with the discovery, Wu decided to email the professor who later invited him to travel to Tuscon, Arizona, for hands-on training using telescopes. Later that summer, Wu went to Gainesville, Florida, to begin his research.
“It was quite an unexpected discovery. I actually wasn’t looking for circumbinary planets when I first started this research. I was just looking for normal giant planets like Jupiter and also the brown dwarfs,” said Wu. “But once I discovered this planet, it really changed the direction of my research.”
Wu found his Tatooine-like planet by employing a method called Doppler spectroscopy, which uses wobble shifts from stars’ spectrum to detect planets.
“Many people think when you’re looking for a planet you’re actually pointing a telescope to the sky and recording what you see, but Doppler spectroscopy works differently,” he said.
Wu said he was able to use Doppler spectroscopy to find a circumbinary planet due to his use of a large sample size of 1,100 planets. Previous studies were using far smaller sample sizes, making it difficult to find the rare systems.
“You’re basically looking for a diamond in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that’s how rare looking for one of these systems is,” he said.
After three years of work, through entering his project into other competitions like Siemens and Intel International Science and Engineering competitions, Wu learned about the Davidson Institute scholarship and submitted his 60-page research paper, a PowerPoint presentation, two essays and a 10-minute movie about his work.
“I feel really honored to be able to receive [the scholarship] because it really validates all of the work I’ve been doing for the past three years,” said Wu.
Wu believes that in light of the degradation of Earth’s environment due to climate change, astronomy and planet seeking should be an important ambition for mankind. He said he hopes that one day he will be the one to find humanity’s next home.
“Reversing all the environmental and ecosystem damage that we’ve done over the last few centuries is obviously going to be a very difficult task,” said Wu. “I strongly believe that we must be able to find a second home for us elsewhere —whether it be somewhere near our solar system or somewhere across the galaxy, humans must learn to live among the stars.”