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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TESS Finds Almost 100 Quadruple Star Systems

This is an artist's illustration of the quadruple star system 30 Arietis. Astronomers are discovering more quadruple star systems as observational power increases. Image Credit: Karen Teramura, UH IfA

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.

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It Turns out, We Have a Very Well-Behaved Star

Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Our Sun is a Population II star about 5 billion years old. It contains elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, including oxygen, carbon, neon, and iron, though only in tiny percentags. Image: NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Should we thank our well-behaved Sun for our comfy home on Earth?

Some stars behave poorly. They’re unruly and emit powerful stellar flares that can devastate life on any planets within range of those flares. New research into stellar flares on other stars makes our Sun seem downright quiescent.

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5,000 Exoplanets!

An artist's illustration of NASA's TESS with Earth and the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

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.

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These Newly-Discovered Planets are Doomed

An artist’s rendition of what a planetary system similar to TOI-2337b, TOI-4329b, and TOI-2669b might look like, where a hot Jupiter-like exoplanet orbits an evolved, dying star. Image Credit: Karen Teramura/University of Hawai?i Institute for Astronomy

Astronomers have spied three more exoplanets. But the discovery might not last long. Each planet is in a separate solar system, and each orbits perilously close to its star. Even worse, all of the stars are dying.

The results?

Three doomed planets.

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Exoplanet Found With a Highly Eccentric Orbit

An artist's rendering of TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light years away from Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The study of extrasolar planets has revealed some interesting things in recent decades. Not only have astronomers discovered entirely new types of planets – Super Jupiters, Hot Jupiters, Super-Earths, Mini-Neptunes, etc. – it has also revealed new things about solar system architecture and planetary dynamics. For example, astronomers have seen multiple systems of planets where the orbits of the planets did not conform to our Solar System.

According to a new study led by the University of Bern, an international team of researchers recently observed a Mini-Neptune (TOI-2257 b) orbiting a red dwarf star located about 188.5 light-years from Earth. What was interesting about this find was how the small ice giant had such an eccentric orbit, which is almost twice as long as it is wide! This is almost two and a half times as eccentric as Mercury, making TOI-2257 b the most eccentric planet ever discovered!

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TESS Finds a New Mars-Sized Planet (With the Density of Mercury)

An artist's illustration of a hypothetical exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)
An artist's illustration of a hypothetical exoplanet orbiting a red dwarf. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/G. Bacon (STScI)

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.

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A Machine-Learning Algorithm Just Found 301 Additional Planets in Kepler Data

Artist's concept of the Kepler mission with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist's concept of the Kepler mission with Earth in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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 Kepler Space 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.

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Astronomers Find a Planet That Orbits its Star in Just 16 HOURS!

The newly discovered planet, designated TOI-2109b, is relatively close to its star, at a distance of only about 1.5 million miles out. Credits: Image: NASA, ESA and G. Bacon

Mercury is the speed champion in our Solar System. It orbits the Sun every 88 days, and its average speed is 47 km/s. Its average distance from the Sun is 58 million km (36 million mi), and it’s so fast it’s named after Mercury, the wing-footed God.

But what if instead of Mercury, Jupiter was closest to the Sun? And what if Jupiter was even closer to the Sun than Mercury and far hotter?

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Maybe There’s No Way to Tell if Habitable Planets Orbit Proxima Centauri… Yet!

This artist’s impression shows the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image between the planet and Proxima itself. Proxima b is a little more massive than the Earth and orbits in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, where the temperature is suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Our closest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located over 4.24 light-years away (part of the Alpha Centauri trinary system). In 2016, the astronomical community was astounded to learn that an Earth-like planet orbited within this star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ). In addition to being the closest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b was also considered the most promising place to look for extraterrestrial life for a time.

Unfortunately, the scientific community has been divided on whether or not life could even be possible on this planet. All of these studies indicate that this question cannot be answered until astronomers characterize Proxima b’s atmosphere, ideally by observing it as it passes in front (aka. transited) of its host star. But in a new NASA-supported study, a team led by astrophysicists at the University of Chicago determined that this is an unlikely possibility.

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