Two New Rocky Planets Discovered Close to the Solar System

An artist's illustration of two newly-discovered super-Earths. They're only 33 light years away and they orbit a red dwarf named HD 260655. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

TESS has struck paydirt again. NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft has found two new super-Earths orbiting a star only 33 light-years away. These are two of the closest rocky planets ever found.

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Astronomers Look at Super-Earths That had Their Atmospheres Stripped Away by Their Stars

Figure 1: Artist’s conceptual image showing the sizes of the planets observed in this study. The radius of TOI-1634 is 1.5 times larger than Earth’s radius and TOI-1685 is 1.8 times larger. The planets would appear red, due to the light from the red dwarf stars they orbit. (Credit: Astrobiology Center, NINS)

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.

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There are Probably Many More Earth-Sized Worlds Than Previously Believed

This illustration depicts a planet partially hidden in the glare of its host star and a nearby companion star. After examining a number of binary stars, astronomers have concluded that Earth-sized planets in many two-star systems might be going unnoticed by transit searches, which look for changes in the light from a star when a planet passes in front of it. The light from the second star makes it more difficult to detect the changes in the host star’s light when the planet passes in front of it. Credit: International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/J. da Silva (Spaceengine)

In the past decade, the discovery of extrasolar planets has accelerated immensely. To date, 4,424 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,280 star systems, with another 7,453 awaiting confirmation. So far, most of these planets have been gas giants, with about 66% being similar to Jupiter or Neptune, while another 30% have been giant rocky planets (aka. “Super-Earths). Only a small fraction of confirmed exoplanets (less than 4%) have been similar in size to Earth.

However, according to new research by astronomers working at NASA Ames Research Center, it is possible that Earth-sized exoplanets are more common than previously thought. As they indicated in a recent study, there could be twice as many rocky exoplanets in binary systems that are obscured by the glare of their parent stars. These findings could have drastic implications in the search for potentially habitable worlds since roughly half of all stars are binary systems.

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To Take the Best Direct Images of Exoplanets With Space Telescopes, we’re Going to Want Starshades

Between 2021 and 2024, the James Webb (JWST) and Nancy Grace Roman (RST) space telescopes will be launched to space. As the successors to multiple observatories (like Hubble, Kepler, Spitzer, and others), these missions will carry out some of the most ambitious astronomical surveys ever mounted. This will range from the discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets to investigating the mysteries of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

In addition to advanced imaging capabilities and high sensitivity, both instruments also carry coronagraphs – instruments that suppress obscuring starlight so exoplanets can be detected and observed directly. According to a selection of papers recently published by the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems (JATIS), we’re going to need more of these instruments if we truly want to really study exoplanets in detail.

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Most Exoplanets won’t Receive Enough Radiation to Support an Earth-Like Biosphere

The Juno spacecraft took this image of Earth during a gravity assist flyby of our planet in 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

To date, astronomers have confirmed the existence of 4,422 extrasolar planets in 3,280 star systems, with an additional 7,445 candidates awaiting confirmation. Of these, only a small fraction (165) have been terrestrial (aka. rocky) in nature and comparable in size to Earth – i.e., not “Super-Earths.” And even less have been found that are orbiting within their parent star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ).

In the coming years, this is likely to change when next-generation instruments (like James Webb) are able to observe smaller planets that orbit closer to their stars (which is where Earth-like planets are more likely to reside). However, according to a new study by researchers from the University of Napoli and the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF), Earth-like biospheres may be very rare for exoplanets.

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A Recent Megaflare Shows that Proxima Centauri is not a Nice Place to Live

Artist's conception of a violent stellar flare erupting on neighboring star, Proxima Centauri. The flare is the most powerful ever recorded from the star, and is giving scientists insight into the hunt for life in M dwarf star systems, many of which have unusually lively stars. Credit: NRAO/S. Dagnello.

Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, has been a focal point of scientific study since it was first confirmed (in 2016). This terrestrial planet (aka. rocky) orbits Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located 4.2 light-years beyond our Solar System – and is a part of the Alpha Centauri system. In addition to its proximity and rocky composition, it is also located within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Until a mission can be sent to this planet (such as Breakthrough Starshot), astrobiologists are forced to postulate about the possibility that life could exist there. Unfortunately, an international campaign that monitored Proxima Centauri for months using nine space- and ground-based telescopes recently spotted an extreme flare coming from the star, one which would have rendered Proxima b uninhabitable.

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One of the Oldest Stars in the Galaxy has a Planet. Rocky Planets Were Forming at Nearly the Beginning of the Universe

Artist's rendition of TOI-561, one of the oldest, most metal-poor planetary systems discovered yet in the Milky Way galaxy. This 10 billion-year-old system has a hot, rocky exoplanet (center) that's one and a half times the size of Earth as well as two gas planets (to the left of the rocky planet) that are about twice as large as Earth. Credit: W. M. Keck Observatory/Adam Makarenko

Would it be surprising to find a rocky planet that dates back to the very early Universe? It should be. The early Universe lacked the heavier elements necessary to form rocky planets.

But astronomers have found one, right here in the Milky Way.

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