Thursday, 24 January, 2019

Nasa spacecraft spots gaseous planet 23 times the size of Earth

The newfound planet K2-288Bb illustrated here is slightly smaller than Neptune Weird 'Sub-Neptune' Exoplanet Discovered by NASA Space Telescope
Cary Marshall | 08 January, 2019, 20:35

NASA's planet-hunting telescope is making landmark discoveries at an astonishing pace and has now confirmed discovery of a third new planet and a handful of exploding stars in our "cosmic backyard".

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found three confirmed exoplanets in its first three months of observations. 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. The recently discovered world is categorized as a "sub-Neptune", about three times larger than Earth but approximately 23 times as massive.

The surface of the new planet is likely around 300 degrees Fahrenheit and is relatively cool, given its proximity to its star, which is nearly as bright as the sun, said the team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

"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. "But here we were lucky, and caught this one, and can now study it in more detail", Dragomir said.

K2-288Bb is half the size of Neptune or 1.9 times the size of Earth, placing it in the "Fulton gap " between 1.5 and two times the size of Earth.

According to NASA, the planet is half the size of Neptune and could be gas-rich, though it's possible that it's rocky instead.

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".

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On the bright side, there is evidence of a second, still unconfirmed planet in the same system, this one with a much shorter 7.8-day orbit. The satellite will spend the first year surveying the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, before swiveling around to take in the Northern Hemisphere sky.

A different group of astronomers had studied the HD 21749 system a decade ago using HARPS, which finds planets by noticing the tiny wobbles that their gravitational tugs induce in their host stars.

She and her colleagues compared the pattern to the first full transit they had originally discovered, and found a near ideal match - an indication that the planet passed again in front of its star, in a 36-day orbit. She is also the lead author of a paper describing the new planet accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal. That's actually quite cool, considering how close the planet is to its star. Dr. Ricker briefly touched on a potential extended mission for the planet-hunting telescope that would begin in 2020 and carry on until 2022, in which it would look at additional sectors of the sky that were missed during its first years of operation.

They also used data from the Planet Finder Spectrograph, an instrument installed on the Magellan Telescope in Chile, to further validate their findings and constrain the planet's mass and orbit. They determined that they should be able to find the signal again, in TESS's "sector 3" data - which they succeeded in doing. "But we were lucky and we caught the signals, and they were really clear".

Once TESS has completed its two-year monitoring of the entire sky, the science team has committed to delivering information on 50 small planets less than four times the size of Earth to the astronomy community for further follow-up, either with ground-based telescopes or the future James Webb Space Telescope.

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.

In 2017, Feinstein and Makennah Bristow, an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville, worked as interns with Joshua Schlieder, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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