NASA finds planet outside solar system that may have water

09 January, 2019, 18:23 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • NASA believe they may have found a planet that could contain life. Credit NASA

The new exoplanet, named HD 21749b, was discovered by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April.

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

The mission's sensitive cameras also captured 100 short-lived changes - majority likely stellar outbursts - in the same region of the sky.

If anything, TESS' legacy could be even longer-lived than Kepler's.

However, TESS is not just a planet-hunter.

Scientists are already working on followup observations for more than 280 planet candidates that TESS has found.

The three confirmed exoplanets are designated Pi Mensae c, LHS 3884b, and HD 21749b.

TESS - that is, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - is in the midst of surveying almost the entire sky for exoplanets orbiting stars up to 300 light-years away from Earth.

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

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K2-288Bb, as the new planet is called, is located within its star's habitable zone, which is why liquid water is a possibility.

It is regarded as a "sub-Neptune" world and is roughly three times larger than Earth. This is relatively cool considering its proximity to its star. The brightest of the two stars is half as massive as our sun, and the other star is one-third of the sun's mass. K2-288Bb orbits the smaller, dimmer star, completing a full orbit every 31.3 days. "This planet has a greater density than Neptune, but it isn't rocky". The last of these three has astroboffins excited because while it's too hot for life at 150°C (300°F), it could either be a water planet or be home to what Hubble Fellow Diana Dragomir called a "substantial atmosphere".

Its size is unusual for an exoplanet (the term for a planet that orbits a star outside our solar system). If confirmed, it could be the smallest TESS planet to date.

Its four wide-field cameras will view the sky in 26 segments, each of which it will observe one by one. The primary aim is to look for exoplanet transits, which occur when a planet passes in front of its host star as viewed from TESS's perspective. If the light "dips", momentarily decreasing in brightness, it suggests that a planet may be orbiting the star.

Those researchers had also detected a signal, but they couldn't conclusively attribute it to a planet, Dragomir said.

"Some of the most interesting science occurs in the early days of a supernova, which has been very hard to observe before TESS", said Michael Fausnaugh, a TESS researcher at the MIT Kavli Institute. "NASA's Kepler space telescope caught six of these events as they brightened during its first four years of operations". Type Ia supernovae form through two channels. There were too many light curves to study on their own. As a result, data collected during the first few days of observations were simply ignored, according to the statement. "The astronomical community's reaction to the early data release showed us that the world is ready to jump in and add to the mission's scientific bounty".

TESS works better than team members had dared to dream, says George Ricker, a physicist at MIT and the mission's principal investigator. The first two candidates - known as Pi Mensae c and LHS 3844b - were reported in September, and they've now taken their place as the first two confirmed planets on TESS' list.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

These exoplanets will be studied so that NASA can determine the best targets for future missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope. More than a dozen universities, research institutes and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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