Astronomers think they’ve found an extrasolar planet covered in volcanoes like Jupiter’s moon Io, but this world is about the same size as Earth. Designated LP 791-18 d, the planet is probably tidally locked around a small, red dwarf star about 90 light-years away in the constellation Crater. There are two other more massive planets in the system, and their tidal interactions could cause enough tidal flexing that it unleashes planet-wide volcanoes on LP 791-18 d.
Planet d is located within the habitable zone of the star, and with all the other conditions, astronomers think it might be temperate enough on the permanent night side of this world to allow water to exist.
NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission recently reached its fifth anniversary of service to humanity as it continues to tirelessly scan the heavens for worlds beyond. Dubbed as an all-sky mission, TESS was launched on April 18, 2018, aboard a SpaceX Falcon rocket. During its five years in space, TESS’s four 24 degrees by 24 degrees field-of-view CCD cameras have successfully mapped greater than 93% of the cosmos.
In April 2018, NASA launched the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite(TESS), the successor to theKepler Space Telescope that revolutionized the exoplanet studies field. Like its predecessor, TESS has been scanning almost the entire sky for five years for extrasolar planets using the Transit Method. This consists of monitoring thousands of stars for periodic dips in brightness, which may indicate a planet passing in front of the star relative to the observer. To date, TESS has made 243 confirmed discoveries, with another 4562 candidates – or TESS Objects of Interest (TOI) – awaiting confirmation.
On Monday, October 10th, fans of the TESS mission and the research it conducts got a bit of a scare as the observatory experienced a malfunction and had to be put into safe mode. Three days later, at around 06:30 PM EDT (03:30 PM PDT) on October 13th, NASA announced that their engineers had successfully powered up the instrument and brought it back online. While technicians at NASA are still investigating the cause of the malfunction, the spacecraft is now back in its fine-pointing mode and has resumed its second extended mission (EM2).
NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found over 5000 candidate exoplanet candidates, and 197 confirmed exoplanets since its mission began in late 2018. TESS is good at finding exoplanets, but the spacecraft is a powerful scientific platform, and it’s made other discoveries, too. Scientists working with TESS recently announced 97 quadruple star candidates, nearly doubling the number of known quadruple systems.
Before NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) mission launched in 2018, astronomers tried to understand what it would find in advance. One study calculated that TESS would find between 4430 and 4660 new exoplanets during its primary two-year-long mission.
The primary mission (PM) is over, and TESS is in its extended mission (EM) now. The extended mission is 1.5 years old, and TESS has discovered 176 confirmed exoplanets and 5164 candidates. Scientists are still going through data from the primary mission, so the data might be hiding many more exoplanets. And TESS isn’t finished yet.
Looking to the future, astronomers are excited to see how machine learning – aka. deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI) – will enhance surveys. One field that is already benefitting in the search for extrasolar planets, where researchers rely on machine-learning algorithms to distinguish between faint signals and background noise. As this field continues to transition from discovery to characterization, the role of machine intelligence is likely to become even more critical.
Take the KeplerSpace Telescope, which accounted for 2879 confirmed discoveries (out of the 4,575 exoplanets discovered made to date) during its nearly ten years of service. After examining the data collected by Kepler using a new deep-learning neural network called ExoMiner, a research team at NASA’s Ames Research Center was able to detect 301 more planetary signals and add them to the growing census of exoplanets.
As the planets of our Solar System demonstrate, understanding the solar dynamics of a system is a crucial aspect of determining habitability. Because of its protective magnetic field, Earth has maintained a fluffy atmosphere for billions of years, ensuring a stable climate for life to evolve. In contrast, other rocky planets that orbit our Sun are either airless, have super-dense (Venus), or have very thin atmospheres (Mars) due to their interactions with the Sun.
In recent years, astronomers have been on the lookout for this same process when studying extrasolar planets. For instance, an international team of astronomers led by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) recently conducted follow-up observations of two Super-Earths that orbit very closely to their respective stars. These planets, which have no thick primordial atmospheres, represent a chance to investigate the evolution of atmospheres on hot rocky planets.
TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has found a new planet, and the discovery of this sub-Neptune exoplanet has scientists excited about atmospheres. The combination of the planet’s size, its thick atmosphere, and its orbit around a small M-class star close to Earth provides researchers with an opportunity to learn more about exoplanet atmospheres. We’re getting better and better at finding exoplanets, and studying their atmospheres is the next step in understanding them as a whole.