NASA finds planet outside solar system that may have water

Christopher Davidson
January 9, 2019

NASA's Kepler Mission K2 team announced the discovery of another new world today, two months after the Kepler spacecraft ran out of fuel on October 30th, and ended its mission after nine years, during which it discovered 2,600 confirmed planets around other stars - the bulk of those now known - along with thousands of additional candidates astronomers are working to confirm.

NASA has announced that TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has discovered a third "small" planet outside our solar system.

The other two planets it has discovered are Pi Mensae c, a super-Earth that zips around its star in 6.3 days, and LHS 3844b, a rocky planet that flies around its planet in a whopping 11-hour orbit. All three planets were discovered in the first three months of TESS observations. The exoplanet likely has an average surface temperature around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), discovery team members said. "But here, we were lucky and caught this one and can now study it in more detail". Among planets that orbit close to their stars, there's a curious dearth of worlds between about 1.5 and two times Earth's size. The planet, located in the Taurus constellation, is about half the size of Neptune and could be gas-rich or it could be rocky, according to NASA.

Johanna Teske, a Hubble fellow and co-author of the report, said: "I'm very interested to know whether [it] has an Earth-like density to match its Earth-like radius - this will contribute to our understanding whether Earth-sized planets have diverse compositions or are all roughly similar to Earth".

There is also evidence that a second planet could exist in this system with a 7.8-day orbit - which could be the first Earth-size planet dicovered by TESS.

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". Data gathered during the course of its scientific mission, however, paved way to the discovery of a new exoplanet.

Tess monitors sections of the sky and waits for momentary dips in the light of about 200,000 nearby stars - a sign that a planet has passed in front of that star. The satellite will spend the first year surveying the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, before swiveling around to take in the Northern Hemisphere sky. "We don't know how that could form".

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When the researchers looked through the HARPS data, they discovered a repeating signal emanating from HD 21749 every 36 days.

As far as what the planet may be like, the jury is still out. "TESS found as many in its first month".

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

In total, Kepler has found around 5,000 unconfirmed "candidate" exoplanets, with a further 2,500 "confirmed" exoplanets that scientists have since shown to be real.

The Trappist-1 star system, which hosts a record seven Earth-like planets, was one of the biggest discoveries of 2017. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

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.

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