To date, astronomers have confirmed 5,272 exoplanets in 3,943 systems using a variety of detection methods. Of these, 1,834 are Neptune-like, 1,636 are gas giants (Jupiter-sized or larger), 1,602 are rocky planets several times the size and mass of Earth (Super-Earths), and 195 have been Earth-like. With so many exoplanets available for study (and next-generation instruments optimized for the task), the process is shifting from discovery to characterization. And discoveries, which are happening regularly, are providing teasers of what astronomers will likely see in the near future.
While the Hubble Space Telescope celebrates 32 years in orbit, like a fine wine, it has only gotten better with age as it continues to study the Universe and teach us more about our place in the cosmos. Hubble doesn’t just take breathtaking images of our Universe, but it also studies our own solar system, galaxies, and exoplanets, as well. It is this last subject where Hubble has recently been hard at work, though.
Hubble’s most remarkable feature might be its longevity. The Hubble has been operating for almost 32 years and has fed us a consistent diet of science—and eye candy—during that time. For 13 of its 32 years, it’s been checking in on a protoplanet forming in a young solar system about 530 light-years away.
Planet formation is always a messy process. But in this case, the planet’s formation is an “intense and violent process,” according to the authors of a new study.
Today’s astronomers are busy building the census of extrasolar planets, which has reached a total of 4,884 confirmed planets, with another 8,288 candidates awaiting confirmation. Now that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has finally been launched, future surveys will be reaching beyond mere discovery and will be focused more on characterization. In essence, future exoplanet surveys will determine with greater certainty which planets are habitable and which are not.
One characteristic that they will be on the lookout for in particular is the presence of planetary magnetic fields (aka. magnetospheres). On Earth, the atmosphere and all life on the surface are protected by a magnetic field, which is why they are considered crucial to habitability. Using data from the venerated Hubble Space Telescope (HST), an international team of astronomers reported the detection of a magnetic field around an exoplanet for the first time!
Can planets form around massive, hot stars? Some astronomers think they can’t. According to the evidence, planets around stars exceeding three solar masses should be rare, or maybe even non-existent. But now astronomers have found one.
A team of researchers found a binary star that’s six times the mass of the Sun. And it hosts a planet that’s about ten times more massive than Jupiter.
Some planets orbit their stars so closely that they have extremely high surface temperatures and extremely rapid orbits. Most of the ones astronomers have found are Hot Jupiters— planets in the size range of Jupiter and with similar compositions as Jupiter. Their size and proximity to their star make them easier to spot using the transit method.
But there’s another type of planet that also orbits very close to their stars and has extremely high surface temperatures. They’re small, rocky, and they orbit their star in less than 24 hours. They’re called ultra-short-period (USP) planets and TESS found one that orbits its star in only eight hours.
And the planet’s density is almost equivalent to pure iron.
WASP-76b is an ultra-hot Jupiter about 640 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Pisces. A few years ago it gained notoriety for being so hot that iron falls as rain. It’s tidally locked to its star, and the planet’s star-facing hemisphere can reach temperatures as high as 2400 Celsius, well above iron’s 1538 C melting point.
Scientists have been studying the planet since its discovery in 2013, and new evidence suggests that it’s even hotter than thought. But, almost disappointingly, there might be no iron rain after all.
For centuries, human beings have speculated about the existence of planetary systems (much like our own) orbiting other stars. However, it has only been in the past few decades that scientists have been able to detect and study these distant worlds. To date, astronomers have used various methods to confirm the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation.
Naturally, this raises some questions. If there is intelligent life out there that has similar capabilities to our own – and the same burning sense of curiosity – could it be watching us too? Equally important is the question of how many of be able to detect us. According to new research conducted by a team from Cornell and the American Museum of Natural History, there are 2,034 star systems within 326 light-years of Earth that would be watching us right now!
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.
One of the unspoken caveats of most exoplanet discovery missions is that they only operate for a few years. Such a short observing window means there are planets with longer orbital periods, usually further out from the star, that those surveys would completely miss. Knowing this would be a problem, a team of astronomers arranged the California Legacy Survey three decades ago in order to monitor as many stars as possible for as long a time as possible. Recently they released their first results, which show solar systems that are surprisingly like our own.