TESS Finds a Super-Earth and two Mini-Neptunes in a Single System

An artist’s rendition of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

The field of extrasolar planet studies continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Currently, 5,090 exoplanets have been confirmed in 3,816 systems, and another 8,933 candidates are awaiting confirmation. The majority of these have been Neptune-like gas giants (1,779), gas giants comparable to Jupiter or Saturn (1,536), and rocky planets many times the size of Earth (1,582). The most effective means for finding exoplanets has been the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where periodic dips in a star’s brightness are seen as an indication of a planet passing in front of its star (transiting) relative to the observer.

Using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), an international team of astronomers has discovered a three-planet system orbiting a Sun-like star (HD 22946, or TOI 11) located about 205.5 light-years. Based on size estimates yielded from their transits, the team theorizes that these exoplanets consist of a rocky planet several times the size of Earth (a Super-Earth) and two gas giants smaller than Neptune. Given its proximity, this system could be ideal for follow-up studies and characterization with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

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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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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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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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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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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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Just Some of the Planets That TESS Has Found Nearby

Credit: NASA

Ever since NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope was launched in 2009, there has an explosion in the study of the extrasolar planets. With the retirement of Kepler in 2018, it has fallen to missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) to pick up where its predecessor left off. Using observations from TESS, an international team of astronomers recently discovered three exoplanets orbiting a young Sun-like star named TOI 451.

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Machine Learning Algorithm Scoops up 50 New Exoplanets

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Advances in technology are having a profound impact on astronomy and astrophysics. At one end, we have advanced hardware like adaptive optics, coronographs, and spectrometers that allow for more light to be gathered from the cosmos. At the other end, we have improved software and machine learning algorithms that are allowing for the data to be analyzed and mined for valuable nuggets of information.

One area of research where this is proving to be invaluable is in the hunt for exoplanets and the search for life. At the University of Warwick, technicians recently developed an algorithm that was able to confirm the existence of 50 new exoplanets. When used to sort through archival data, this algorithm was able to sort through a sample of candidates and determine which were actual planets and which were false positives.

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A New Way to Measure the Age of the Milky Way

Artist’s impression of the warped and twisted Milky Way disk. Credit: Chen Xiaodian/Kavli Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics

Like many other spiral galaxies in the Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy consists of two disk-like structures – the thin disk and the thick disk. The thick disk, which envelopes the thin disk, contains about 20% of the Milky Way’s stars and is thought to be the older of the pair based on the composition of its stars (which have greater metallicity) and its puffier nature.

However, in a recent study, a team of 38 scientists led by researchers from Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in Three Dimensions (ASTRO-3D) used data from the now-retired Kepler mission to measure starquakes in the Milky Way’s disk. From this, they have revised the official estimates on the age of the Milky Way’s thick disk, which they conclude is around 10 billion years old.

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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will Inspect the Atmospheres of Distant Gas Giants

Artist's impression of the Jupiter-size extrasolar planet, HD 189733b, being eclipsed by its parent star. Credits: ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI

The James Webb Space Telescope is like the party of the century that keeps getting postponed. Due to its sheer complexity and some anomalous readings that were detected during vibration testing, the launch date of this telescope has been pushed back many times – it is currently expected to launch sometime in 2021. But for obvious reasons, NASA remains committed to seeing this mission through.

Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope in operation, and its advanced suite of instruments will reveal things about the Universe that have never before been seen. Among these are the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, which will initially consist of gas giants. In so doing, the JWST will refine the search for habitable planets, and eventually begin examining some potential candidates.

The JWST will be doing this in conjunction with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which deployed to space back in April of 2018. As the name suggests, TESS will be searching for planets using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where stars are monitored for periodic dips in brightness – which are caused by a planet passing in front of them relative to the observer.

Artist Illustration of TESS and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT
Artist concept of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT

Some of Webb’s first observations will be conducted through the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science program –  a transiting exoplanet planet team at Webb’s science operation center. This team is planning on conducting three different types of observations that will provide new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of Webb’s science instruments.

As Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-principal investigator on the transiting exoplanet project, explained in a NASA press release:

“We have two main goals. The first is to get transiting exoplanet datasets from Webb to the astronomical community as soon as possible. The second is to do some great science so that astronomers and the public can see how powerful this observatory is.”

As Natalie Batalha of NASA Ames Research Center, the project’s principal investigator, added:

“Our team’s goal is to provide critical knowledge and insights to the astronomical community that will help to catalyze exoplanet research and make the best use of Webb in the limited time we have available.”

For their first observation, the JWST will be responsible for characterizing a planet’s atmosphere by examining the light that passes through it. This happens whenever a planet transits in front of a star, and the way light is absorbed at different wavelengths provides clues as to the atmosphere’s chemical composition. Unfortunately, existing space telescopes have not had the necessary resolution to scan anything smaller than a gas giant.

The JWST, with its advanced infrared instruments, will examine the light passing through exoplanet atmospheres, split it into a rainbow spectrum, and then infer the atmospheres’ composition based on which sections of light are missing. For these observations, the project team selected WASP-79b, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits a star in the Eridanus constellation, roughly 780 light-years from Earth.

The team expects to detect and measure the abundances of water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide in WASP-79b, but is also hoping to find molecules that have not yet been detected in exoplanet atmospheres. For their second observation, the team will be monitoring a “hot Jupiter” known as WASP-43b, a planet which orbits its star with a period of less than 20 hours.

Like all exoplanets that orbit closely to their stars, this gas giant is tidally-locked – where one side is always facing the star. When the planet is in front of the star, astronomers are only able to see its cooler backside; but as it orbits, the hot day-side slowly comes into view. By observing this planet for the entirety of its orbit, astronomers will be able to observe those variations (known as a phase curve) and use the data to map the planet’s temperature, clouds, and atmospheric chemistry.

This data will allow them to sample the atmosphere to different depths and obtain a more complete picture of the planet’s internal structure. As Bean indicated:

“We have already seen dramatic and unexpected variations for this planet with Hubble and Spitzer. With Webb we will reveal these variations in significantly greater detail to understand the physical processes that are responsible.”

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 their third observation, the team will be attempting to observe a transiting planet directly. This is very challenging, seeing as how the star’s light is much brighter and therefore obscures the faint light being reflected off the planet’s atmosphere. One method for addressing this is to measure the light coming from a star when the planet is visible, and again when it disappears behind the star.

By comparing the two measurements, astronomers can calculate how much light is coming from the planet alone. This technique works best for very hot planets that glow brightly in infrared light, which is why they selected WASP-18b for this observation – a hot Jupiter that reaches temperatures of around 2,900 K (2627 °C; 4,800 °F). In the process, they hope to determine the composition of the planet’s smothering stratosphere.

In the end, these observations will help test the abilities of the JWST and calibrate its instruments. The ultimate goal will be to examine the atmospheres of potentially-habitable exoplanets, which in this case will include rocky (aka. “Earth-like”) planets that orbit low mass, dimmer red dwarf stars. In addition to being the most common star in our galaxy, red dwarfs are also believed to be the most likely place to find Earth-like planets.

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. Beyond 2020, many more next-generation space telescopes are expected to build on what it discovers. Credit: NASA

As Kevin Stevenson, a researcher with the Space Telescope Science Institute and a co-principal investigator on the project, explained:

“TESS should locate more than a dozen planets orbiting in the habitable zones of red dwarfs, a few of which might actually be habitable. We want to learn whether those planets have atmospheres and Webb will be the one to tell us. The results will go a long way towards answering the question of whether conditions favorable to life are common in our galaxy.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory once deployed, and will help astronomers to solve mysteries in our Solar System, study exoplanets, and observe the very earliest periods of the Universe to determine how its large-scale structure evolved over time. For this reason, its understandable why NASA is asking that the astronomical community be patient until they are sure it will deploy successfully.

When the payoff is nothing short of ground-breaking discoveries, it’s only fair that we be willing to wait. In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about how scientists study exoplanet atmospheres, courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute:

Further Reading: NASA