Sunday, 16 June, 2019

NASA probe discovers new planet HD 21749b, calls it `coolest small planet`

NASA's TESS probe discovers an exoplanet about three times the size of the Earth Artistic illustration of TESS spacecraft observing the exoplanet. Image NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre
Kristen Harrington | 09 January, 2019, 10:27

It takes HD 21749b 36 days to orbit around its star, which is almost as bright as the Sun.

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

The discovery is unique for a number of reasons - not least of which is that it was made by amateur astronomers - but the biggest surprise for scientists was its size.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", lead researcher Diana Dragomir, a post-doctoral student at the MIT, said.

"We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars", Paul Hertz, the director of NASA's astrophysics division, said in March 2018.

About three times the size of Earth (and a whopping 23 times as massive), HD 21749b is categorized as a "sub-Neptune".

Although all of the data from the Kepler mission was run through an algorithm to determine potential planet candidates, visual manpower was needed to actually look at the possible planet transits - or dip in light when a planet passes in front of its star - in the light curve data.

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

"We think this planet wouldn't be as gaseous as Neptune or Uranus, which are mostly hydrogen and really puffy", Dragomir says.

"It could be a water planet or have some other type of substantial atmosphere."

Researchers have also detected evidence of a second planet, with a shorter, 7.8-day orbitin the same planetary system, though it is yet to be confirmed.

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite launched in April to take up the planet-hunting baton from the Kepler space telescope as that historic mission ended. Indeed, HD 21749b is very far-flung for TESS; two other smallish worlds found by the mission have orbital periods of 11 hours and 6.3 days, respectively.

She said: "It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon".

This new and improved Earth is situated in the stellar called K2-288, made up of a pair of dim stars, about 5.1 billion miles apart, which is approximately six times the distance between Saturn and the Sun - if that means anything to you. This is relatively cool considering its proximity to its star.

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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. It is also recording short-lived events such as images of six supernovae in distant galaxies that were later seen by ground-based telescopes.

The new world, named K2-288Bb, was found using data from NASA's now defunct Kepler space telescope.

TESS is surveying an area in the sky that is 400 times larger than what Kepler observed, including 200,000 of the brightest nearby stars. So far, it's right on schedule: About a quarter of the sky has been photographed, eight months after its launch and six months after it began its two-year primary science mission. Bright stars allow for easier followup study through ground- and space-based telescopes.

Kepler is now on the "K2" mission to discover more exoplanets. It's clear that the world is significantly larger than Earth, about twice the size, but it's located within what scientists consider the habitable zone of its system. Those planets could be the best candidates for supporting life outside our solar system.

The object shares many characteristics with our planet despite sitting 1,400 light years away. That telescope, launching in 2021, would be able to characterize the details and atmospheres of exoplanets in ways scientists have not been able to do.

Astronomers are now conducting follow-up observations on more than 280 exoplanet candidates.

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