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Former Rockford grad discovers small planet

Valerie Clarke

Zachory Berta, a 2003 graduate of Rockford High School, recently became elemental to an elite group of astrophysicists that discovered a new planet.

As a doctorate student at Harvard University at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Berta was working on a project called MEarth under Dr. David Charbonneau with a team of six students when he was the first among them to discover a new planetary system last May.

The planetary system consists of a planet and a star. Berta said planets are almost always named after their host stars. Thus, because the star is named GJ1214, the planet will be called GJ1214b.

"Not a very exciting name, but it's the way things are done," he said.

After months of careful observation and analysis the team's discovery was published in the Dec. 17 issue of Nature magazine - a prestigious scientific journal.

"The planet is in the Milky Way galaxy," Berta said. "It is literally right next door in planetary talk - only 40 light-years away from us."

Berta has not only been featured in Nature magazine, but he has also recently done interviews with The Wall Street Journal, The Discovery Channel and local Grand Rapids media. Additionally, he spent the first week of January in Washington D.C. giving lectures on the discovery to members of the American Astronomical Society.

The CfA MEarth observatory is located at the F.L. Whipple Observatory in Amado, Ariz., and consists of eight robot controlled, 40-centimeter telescopes. The telescopes keep an eye out for dips in brightness that occur when an exoplanet circles its host star. These dips would indicate the possibility of water and atmosphere on the planet. It was one of these dips that caught Berta's attention in May and led to the discovery of GJ1214b.

The objective of the MEarth project is basically to search for habitable, earth-like planets in our solar system. Through their observations, the team found the dim host star, GJ1214, to be one-fifth the size of the sun and have a luminosity "only three-thousandths as bright" as our sun, Berta said.

The planet GJ1214b, is a balmy 200 degrees Celsius - the equivalent of a medium-high oven temperature.

"Despite its hot temperature, this planet appears to be a water-world," Berta said. "It is much smaller, cooler and more Earth-like than any other known exoplanet."

Berta said he and the team are actively seeking time with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to further study the surface composition and atmospheric conditions of the newly discovered planet.

The man behind the telescope
Zachory Berta, a 2003 Rockford High School graduate who recently discovered a new planet, is the son of local artists Jerry Berta and Madeline Kaczmarczyk.

"It's really big," said his dad, speaking of his son's recent accomplishment. "I didn't realize how big this was until I Googled it and the story came up in dozens of different languages printed in scientific journals all over the world. It's big news."

Berta is now a graduate student in a doctoral program through Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"I expect to finish my Ph.D. in about another four to five years," Berta said. "I am just taking it one step at a time. This is something I love to do."

The bulk of his studies are through the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics which utilize robotic telescopes in the arid mountains of Arizona.

As a child growing up in Rockford, Berta was involved in Odyssey of the Mind and was inspired by many of his teachers as well as his parents. His local fame was solidified when he scored a perfect mark on his SAT, which, among other things, earned him a scholarship at Princeton University. He graduated from Princeton in 2007.

"I had a few excellent math and science teachers at Rockford who helped me want to achieve," Berta said.

Fred Reusch was one of Berta's favorite teachers.

"I had him for Calculus I, II and III, during his junior and senior years in high school," Reusch said. "These were all Advanced Placement courses. Basically, (Berta) was so bright that he picked up the material quickly. I was able to keep challenging him with more advanced material because the normal stuff bored him."

Reusch said Berta also had the unique ability to not only absorb the material, but he could break it down to a level where he could easily explain it to others.

"That is a gift that will make him a great professor one day, if that's what he chooses," Reusch said. "Zach was very well liked by the other students because he was so humble about his abilities. He has so many varied interests in the arts or drama. He could talk just as easily with somebody about a video game as he could an advanced math problem."

Reusch said he was a just a normal guy to the other students and "a very pleasant young man to have in our school."

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