For the last year, Linda He ’23 has turned her eyes to the stars—and she hasn't been alone. The photos of massive galaxies and glittering nebulas emerging from NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, which captured public attention, also inspired her advanced research endeavor in space science.
With one exoplanet already spotted by the telescope, astronomers and physicists will want to know about the properties of any future planetary finds. They're also curious about whether those exoplanets might have neighbors like primordial black holes—enormous masses of matter that emerged in space at the birth of the universe. And Linda's work could be used to make those discoveries, earning her a spot amongst the finalists in the national Regeneron Science Talent Search competition.
"Exoplanets travel in space in their orbits; in particular, I was looking at how their orbits are affected by their surroundings. You can imagine an object in space, where there are a lot of surrounding objects," Linda explains—think of stars, for instance. She wanted to know: "How would the presence of the other objects affect the orbits?"
In her project, called "The Impact of Primordial Black Holes on Exoplanet Systems," Linda sought to answer this question by conducting two simulations using REBOUND and GALA, data-collecting computer programs she customized with her own coding. One simulation examined the trajectories of objects (like the titular black holes) surrounding a potential exoplanet, as well as the planets' own orbits around stars. The second measured the effect that those other objects exerted upon exoplanet orbit as they all interacted within the same planetary system. When both are taken together, a scientist, like Linda, could estimate how many exoplanetary systems have encountered a black hole—or several—based on resulting changes in orbit.
While the planets in Linda's experiment are hypothetical, the mathematical methodology is real, and it's applicable to the kind of celestial bodies being identified by the James Webb Space Telescope. "This research is building on this cutting-edge technology—because we have more data on exoplanets" and trends in how they tend to interact with other objects, Linda says, "hypothetically, you can use this simulation data to make inferences about objects in space." As more exoplanets are discovered, Linda's process can be used to identify orbital changes and, in turn, possible primordial black holes.
The Regeneron Science Talent Search recognition is one of the highest levels of achievement for high school scientists; the cohort of forty finalists was selected from more than 1,900 entrants. Linda, who also helms Commonwealth's Math Team and Physics Club and has conducted advanced topology research, began working on her project's modeling in January 2022.
"The [Regeneron Science Talent Search] application is a lot of work, especially if you go to Finals Week," Linda says, which is precisely where she'll be from March 9–15. Nevertheless, she advises other young researchers, "It's definitely worth a try. And if you have a project that you're passionate about, you should apply."