NASA’s probe discovers a new planet

09 January, 2019, 10:29 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • NASA  Goddard

The newly discovered planet orbits a bright and nearby star which is about 53 light years away in the constellation Reticulum.

NASA has announced that TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has discovered a third "small" planet outside our solar system. If confirmed, it could be the first Earth-sized world discovered by TESS. Why scientists are saying the new planet's surface is relatively cool is because its star is nearly as bright as our very own Sun, the team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston said.

"We know a lot about atmospheres of hot planets, but because it's very hard to find small planets that orbit farther from their stars and are therefore cooler, we haven't been able to learn much about these smaller, cooler planets", she added. "But here we were lucky, and can now study this one in more detail".

Calling the planet small is a bit misleading, the team says that HD 21749b is about three times the size of Earth placing it into the sub-Neptune category.

TESS, NASA's planet-hunting telescope, has found an exoplanet three times the size of Earth only 53 light-years away.

It could either be rocky like our home planet or gas-rich like Neptune.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", Dragomir said.

The boffins have also detected evidence of a second planet, though not yet confirmed, in the same planetary system, with a shorter, 7.8-day orbit, according to the IANS report.

The exoplanet, known as K2-288Bb, is about twice the size of Earth and orbits within the habitable zone of its star, meaning liquid water may exist on its surface. Its discovery was announced by scientists at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle.

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Like NASA's recently departed Kepler space telescope, TESS watches for the faint dip in light that occurs when an unseen planet passes in front of a star's disk.

"This star was already known to host a planet, called Pi Mensae b, which is about 10 times the mass of Jupiter and follows a long and very eccentric orbit", said Chelsea Huang, a Juan Carlos Torres Fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute. The satellite will spend the first year surveying the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, before swiveling around to take in the Northern Hemisphere sky.

Each of the planets, which orbit a dwarf star just 39 million light years, likely holds water at its surface.

To complicate matters, the star itself is relatively active, and Dragomir wasn't sure if the single transit she spotted was a result of a passing planet or a blip in stellar activity. "We already have six in one month", Fausnaugh said. "TESS found as many in its first month".

As far as what the planet may be like, the jury is still out.

"There was quite some detective work involved, and the right people were there at the right time", Dragomir said.

So the reprocessed, "cleaned-up" light curves were uploaded through the Exoplanet Explorers project on online platform Zooniverse, and the public was invited to "go forth and find us planets", Feinstein said.

Even if TESS records the looked-for pattern of dimming and brightening, astronomers have to make ground-based observations to confirm that what they're seeing is truly an exoplanet rather than some other type of phenomenon. The findings from TESS are meant to provide a guide for more detailed observations by space telescopes yet to be built, including the European Space Agency's CHEOPS planet-hunting probe and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

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