Twenty-two light-years away, a rocky world orbits a red dwarf. It’s called LTT 1445Ac, and NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) found it in 2022. However, TESS was unable to gauge the small planet’s size.
That’s okay. The venerable Hubble took care of it.
Along with still operational missions, these observatories will gather massive volumes of high-resolution spectroscopic data. Sorting through this data will require cutting-edge machine-learning techniques to look for indications of life and biological processes (aka. biosignatures). In a recent paper, a team of scientists from the Institute for Fundamental Theory at the University of Florida (UF-IFL) recommended that future surveys use machine learning to look for anomalies in the spectra, which could reveal unusual chemical signatures and unknown biosignatures.
In 2026, the European Space Agency (ESA) will launch its next-generation exoplanet-hunting mission, the PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO). This mission will scan over 245,000 main-sequence F, G, and K-type (yellow-white, yellow, and orange) stars using the Transit Method to look for possible Earth-like planets orbiting Solar analogs. In keeping with the “low-hanging fruit” approach (aka. follow the water), these planets are considered strong candidates for habitability since they are most likely to have all the conditions that gave rise to life here on Earth.
Knowing how many planets PLATO will likely detect and how many will conform to Earth-like characteristics is essential to determining how and where it should dedicate its observation time. According to a new study that will be published shortly in the journalAstronomy & Astrophysics, the PLATO mission is likely to find tens of thousands of planets. Depending on several parameters, they further indicate that it could detect a minimum of 500 Earth-sized planets, about a dozen of which will have favorable orbits around G-type (Sun-like) stars.
Astronomers are getting better at gathering data about exoplanets. We have discovered thousands of them, measuring their mass, size, and orbital parameters, and we are starting to measure other aspects such as their temperature and atmospheric composition. Of course, the big hope is that in time we will discover the presence of life on some of these distant worlds, and perhaps even find evidence of an alien civilization. And if there are aliens out there, it’s reasonable to assume they might be looking for us as well. A new study proposes one way we might find each other.
Prediction is one of the hallmarks of scientific endeavors. Scientists pride themselves on being able to predict physical realities based on inputs. So it should come as no surprise that a team of scientists at Notre Dame has developed a theory that can be used to predict the existence of giant planets on the fringes of an exoplanetary system.
In a recent study published in Science Advances, a team of researchers commissioned the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), which is designed to study exoplanetary atmospheres, to examine how a “hot Jupiter” exoplanet is losing its helium atmosphere as it orbits its parent star, leaving tails of helium that extend approximately 25 times the diameter of the planet itself.
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.
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.
Exoplanets have become quite the sensation over the last decade-plus, with scientists confirming new exoplanets on a regular basis thanks to NASA’s Kepler and TESS missions, along with the James Webb Space Telescope recently examining exoplanet atmospheres, as well. It’s because of these discoveries that exoplanet science has turned into an exciting field of intrigue and wonder, but do the very same scientists who study these wonderful and mysterious worlds have their own favorite exoplanets? As it turns out, four such exoplanet scientists, sometimes referred to as “exoplaneteers”, were kind enough to share their favorites with Universe Today!
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).