It's Confirmed. We now Know of More Than 5,000 Exoplanets

An artist view of countless exoplanets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week the official count of known exoplanets crossed 5,000. On the one hand, there isn’t anything special about 5,000 vs 4,900 or 5,100, but on the other hand, crossing this threshold is an indication of how far we’ve come, and how quickly things will change in the future.

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Forget That Planet That Orbits Every 16 Hours. That’s so Last Week. Now Astronomers Have Found a Metal Planet That Orbits its Star EVERY 8 HOURS

Artist view of a hot planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: Patricia Klein

Most exoplanets are found using a technique known as the transit method, where the exoplanet passes in front of its star, causing the star to dim slightly. It takes several transits to confirm an exoplanet, so it’s not surprising that most known exoplanets have a fairly short orbital period. Months or days rather than years. There’s also an observational bias in that most known stars are red dwarfs, so it’s usually not surprising that we’ve found yet another exoplanet closely orbiting a red dwarf star. But sometimes what we find is so extreme, it really is surprising.

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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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Larger Rocky Planets Might be Rare Because They Shrunk

Researchers at the Flatiron Institute’s Center for Computational Astrophysics published a paper last week that just might explain a mysterious gap in planet sizes beyond our solar system. Planets between 1.5 and 2 times Earth’s radius are strikingly rare. This new research suggests that the reason might be because planets slightly larger than this, called mini-Neptunes, lose their atmospheres over time, shrinking to become ‘super-Earths’ only slightly larger than our home planet. These changing planets only briefly have a radius the right size to fill the gap, quickly shrinking beyond it. The implication for planetary science is exciting, as it affirms that planets are not static objects, but evolving and dynamic worlds.

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What Are Extrasolar Planets?

An exoplanet about ten times Jupiter's mass located some 330 light years from Earth. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Pillitteri et al; Optical: DSS; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For countless generations, human beings have looked out at the night sky and wondered if they were alone in the Universe. With the discovery of other planets in our Solar System, the true extent of the Milky Way galaxy, and other galaxies beyond our own, this question has only deepened and become more profound.

And whereas astronomers and scientists have long suspected that other star systems in our galaxy and the Universe had orbiting planets of their own, it has only been within the last few decades that any have been observed. Over time, the methods for detecting these “extrasolar planets” have improved, and the list of those whose existence has been confirmed has grown accordingly (over 4000 and counting!)

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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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TESS Has Now Captured Almost the Entire Southern Sky. Here’s a Mosaic Made of 15,347 Photographs

Credit: NASA

On April 18th, 2018, NASA’s Transitting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) took to space for the first time. By August, it began capturing the light curves of distant stars for signs of planetary transits, effectively picking up where the Kepler Space Telescope left off. Now, just a few months away from the end of its primary mission, NASA has put a year’s worth of images of the southern sky together to create the beautiful mosaic you see here.

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NASA Promised More Smaller, Earth-size Exoplanets. TESS is Delivering.

This infographic illustrates key features of the TOI 270 system, located about 73 light-years away in the southern constellation Pictor. The three known planets were discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite through periodic dips in starlight caused by each orbiting world. Insets show information about the planets, including their relative sizes, and how they compare to Earth. Temperatures given for TOI 270’s planets are equilibrium temperatures, calculated without the warming effects of any possible atmospheres. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Scott Wiessinger

When NASA launched TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) in 2018, it had a specific goal. While its predecessor, the Kepler spacecraft, found thousands of exoplanets, many of them were massive gas giants. TESS was sent into space with a promise: to find smaller planets similar in size to Earth and Neptune, orbiting stable stars without much flaring. Those constraints, astronomers hoped, would identify more exoplanets that are potentially habitable.

With this discovery of three new exoplanets, TESS is fulfilling its promise.

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TESS Just Found its First Earth-Sized World

Artist's conception of HD 21749c, the first Earth-sized planet found by NASA's Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS), as well as its sibling, HD 21749b, a warm sub-Neptune-sized world. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science.
Artist's conception of HD 21749c, the first Earth-sized planet found by NASA's Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS), as well as its sibling, HD 21749b, a warm sub-Neptune-sized world. Credit: Robin Dienel/Carnegie Institution for Science.

NASA’s new planet-hunting telescope, TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite), just found its first Earth-sized world. Though the Earth-sized planet, and its hot sub-Neptune companion, were first observed by TESS in January 2019, it’s taken until now to confirm their status with ground-based follow-up observations. The discovery is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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Now that TESS is Operational, Astronomers Estimate it’ll Find 14,000 Planets. 10 Could Be Earthlike Worlds in a Sunlike Star’s Habitable Zone

An artist’s illustration of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Credits: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
An artist’s illustration of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Credits: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

How many exoplanets are there? Not that long ago, we didn’t know if there were any. Then we detected a few around pulsars. Then the Kepler spacecraft was launched and it discovered a couple thousand more. Now NASA’s TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) is operational, and a new study predicts its findings.

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