NASA’s Exoplanet Watch Wants Your Help Studying Planets Around Other Stars

NASA's Exoplanet Watch allows citizen scientists to participate in exoplanet research. Credit: NASA

It’s no secret that the study of extrasolar planets has exploded since the turn of the century. Whereas astronomers knew less than a dozen exoplanets twenty years ago, thousands of candidates are available for study today. In fact, as of January 13th, 2023, a total of 5,241 planets have been confirmed in 3,916 star systems, with another 9,169 candidates awaiting confirmation. While opportunities for exoplanet research have grown exponentially, so too has the arduous task of sorting through the massive amounts of data involved.

Hence why astronomers, universities, research institutes, and space agencies have come to rely on citizen scientists in recent years. With the help of online resources, data-sharing, and networking, skilled amateurs can lend their time, energy, and resources to the hunt for planets beyond our Solar System. In recognition of their importance, NASA has launched Exoplanet Watch, a citizen science project sponsored by NASA’s Universe of Learning. This project lets regular people learn about exoplanets and get involved in the discovery and characterization process.

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Astronomers Scanned 12 Planets for Alien Signals While They Were in Front of Their Stars

TOI 1338 b is a circumbinary planet orbiting its two stars. It was discovered by TESS. Image Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

The Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT), part of the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, is the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope. Between its 100-meter dish (328-foot), unblocked aperture, and excellent surface accuracy, the GBT provides unprecedented sensitivity in the millimeter to meter wavelengths – very high to extremely high frequency (VHF to EHF). Since 2017, it also became one of the main instruments used by Breakthrough Listen and other institutes engaged in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).

Recently, an international team of researchers from the SETI Institute, Breakthrough Listen, and multiple universities scanned twelve exoplanets for signs of technological activity (aka. “technosignatures”). Their observations were timed to coincide with the planets passing in front of their sun relative to the observer (i.e., making a transit). While the survey did not detect any definitive evidence of technosignatures, they did identify two radio signals of interest that warrant follow-up observation. This new technique could vastly expand the field of SETI and create all kinds of opportunities for future research.

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Hubble and Spitzer Team up to Find a Pair of Waterworld Exoplanets

Artist’s impression of a water world, where half of its mass consists of water. Just like our Moon, the planet is bound to its star by tidal forces and always shows the same face to its host star. Credit: Pilar Montañés

As of December 19th, 2022, 5,227 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,908 systems, with over 9,000 more awaiting confirmation. While most of these planets are Jupiter- or Neptune-sized gas giants or rocky planets many times the size of Earth (Super-Earths), a statistically significant number have been planets where water makes up a significant part of their mass fraction – aka. “water worlds.” These planets are unlike anything we’ve seen in the Solar System and raise several questions about planet formation in our galaxy.

In a recent study, an international team led by researchers from the University of Montreal’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) found evidence of two water worlds in a single planetary system located about 218 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. Based on their densities, the team determined that these exoplanets (Kepler-138c and Kepler-138d) are lighter than rocky “Earth-like” ones but heavier than gas-dominated ones. The discovery was made using data from NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope and the venerable Hubble Space Telescope.

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The Case of the “Missing Exoplanets”

An illustration of the variations among the more than 5,000 known exoplanets discovered since the 1990s. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Today, the number of confirmed exoplanets stands at 5,197 in 3,888 planetary systems, with another 8,992 candidates awaiting confirmation. The majority have been particularly massive planets, ranging from Jupiter and Neptune-sized gas giants, which have radii about 2.5 times that of Earth. Another statistically significant population has been rocky planets that measure about 1.4 Earth radii (aka. “Super-Earths”). This presents a mystery to astronomers, especially where the exoplanets discovered by the venerable Kepler Space Telescope are concerned.

Of the more than 2,600 planets Kepler discovered, there’s an apparent rarity of exoplanets with a radius of about 1.8 times that of Earth – which they refer to as the “radius valley.” A second mystery, known as “peas in a pod,” refers to neighboring planets of similar size found in hundreds of planetary systems with harmonious orbits. In a study led by the Cycles of Life-Essential Volatile Elements in Rocky Planets (CLEVER) project at Rice University, an international team of astrophysicists provide a new model that accounts for the interplay of forces acting on newborn planets that could explain these two mysteries.

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There Could be as Many Water Worlds as Earths in the Milky Way

Artist’s impression of the strange landscape of a water world. Credit: Pilar Montañés

On July 12th, 2022, NASA released the first images acquired by the James Webb Space Telescope, which were taken during its first six months of operation. Among its many scientific objectives, Webb will search for smaller, rocky planets that orbit closer to their suns – especially dimmer M-type (red dwarf) stars, the most common in the Universe. This will help astronomers complete the census of exoplanets and gain a better understanding of the types of worlds that exist out there. In particular, astronomers are curious about how many terrestrial planets in our galaxy are actually “water worlds.”

These are rocky planets that are larger than Earth but have a lower density, which suggests that volatiles like water make up a significant amount (up to half) of their mass-fraction. According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Chicago and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), water worlds may be just as common as “Earth-like” rocky planets. These findings bolster the case for exoplanets that are similar to icy moons in the Solar System (like Europa) and could have significant implications for future exoplanet studies and the search for life in our Universe.

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The Closeby Habitable Exoplanet Survey (CHES) Could Detect Exoplanets Within a few Dozen Light-Years of Earth Using Astrometry

Artist's concept of Earth-like exoplanets, which (according to new research) need to strike the careful balance between water and landmass. Credit: NASA

As of this article’s writing, NASA has indicated that 5,030 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,772 systems, with another 8,974 candidates awaiting confirmation. With next-generation instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) coming online, the number and diversity of confirmed exoplanets are expected to grow exponentially. In particular, astronomers anticipate that the number of known terrestrial planets and Super-Earths will drastically increase.

In the coming years, the opportunities for exoplanet studies will increase considerably as thousands more are discovered using various methods. In a recent study, a team led by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) described a new space-telescope concept known as the Closeby Habitable Exoplanet Survey (CHES). This proposed observatory will search for Earth-like planets in the habitable zones (HZs) of Sun-like stars within approximately 33 light-years (10 parsecs) using a method known as micro-arcsecond relative astrometry.

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How to Search for Life as we Don’t Know it

Artist's concept of Earth-like exoplanets, which (according to new research) need to strike the careful balance between water and landmass. Credit: NASA

The fields of extrasolar planet studies and astrobiology have come a long way in recent years. To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,935 exoplanets in 3,706 star systems, with another 8,709 candidates awaiting confirmation. With so many planets to study, next-generation instruments, and improved data analysis, the focus is transitioning from discovery to characterization. With the James Webb Space Telescope now deployed, these fields are about to advance much farther!

In particular, scientists anticipate that the characterization of planetary atmospheres may lead to the discovery of “biosignatures” – signs we associate with life and biological processes. The challenge will be how to recognize signatures that don’t conform to “life as we know it.” In a recent study, researchers from the School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University (ASU) investigate possible tools for searching for life “as we don’t know it.”

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Astronomers Measure the Layers of an Exoplanet's Atmosphere

An artist's conception of the hot Jupiter WASP-79b. (Image credit: NASA)

The number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially in the past twenty years, with 4,919 confirmed exoplanets (and another 8,493 awaiting confirmation)! Combined with improved instruments and data analysis, the field of study is entering into an exciting new phase. In short, the focus is shifting from discovery to characterization, where astronomers can place greater constraints on potential habitability.

In particular, the characterization of exoplanet atmospheres will allow astronomers to determine their chemical makeup and whether they have the right characteristics to support life. In a new study led by the University of Lund, an international team of researchers characterized the atmosphere of one of the most extreme exoplanets yet discovered. This included discerning what could be several distinct layers that have particular characteristics.

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A Moon Might Have Been Found Orbiting an Exoplanet

An artist's illustration of the Kepler 1625 system. The star in the distance is called Kepler 1625. The gas giant is Kepler 1625B, and the exomoon orbiting it is unnamed. The moon is about as big as Neptune, but is a gas moon. Image: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)
An artist's illustration of the Kepler 1625 system. The star in the distance is called Kepler 1625. The gas giant is Kepler 1625B, and the exomoon orbiting it is unnamed. The moon is about as big as Neptune, but is a gas moon. Image: NASA, ESA, and L. Hustak (STScI)

In the past three decades, the field of extrasolar planet studies has advanced by leaps and bounds. To date, 4,903 extrasolar planets have been confirmed in 3,677 planetary systems, with another 8,414 candidates awaiting confirmation. The diverse nature of these planets, ranging from Super-Jupiters and Super-Earths to Mini-Neptunes and Water Worlds, has raised many questions about the nature of planet formation and evolution. A rather important question is the role and commonality of natural satellites, aka. “exomoons.”

Given the number of moons in the Solar System, it is entirely reasonable to assume that moons are ubiquitous in our galaxy. Unfortunately, despite thousands of know exoplanets, there are still no confirmed exomoons available for study. But thanks to Columbia University’s Professor David Kipping and an international team of astronomers, that may have changed. In a recent NASA-supported study, Kipping and his colleagues report on the possible discovery of an exomoon they found while examining data from the Kepler Space Telescope.

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Astronomers Find 70 Planets Without Stars Floating Free in the Milky Way

This artist’s impression shows an example of a rogue planet with the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex visible in the background. Rogue planets have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own.

The field of extrasolar planet studies continues to reveal some truly amazing things about our Universe. After decades of having just a handful of exoplanets available for study, astronomers are now working with a total of 4,884 confirmed exoplanets and another 8,288 awaiting confirmation. This number is expected to increase exponentially in the coming years as next-generation missions like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Euclid, PLATO, and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST) reveal tens of thousands more.

In addition to learning a great deal about the types of exoplanets that are out there and what kind of stars are known to give rise to them, astronomers have also made another startling discovery. There is no shortage of exoplanets in our galaxy that don’t have a parent star. Using telescopes from around the world, a team of astronomers recently discovered 70 additional free-floating planets (FFPs), the largest sample of “Rogue Planets” discovered to date, and nearly doubling the number of FFPs available for study.

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