Published: Wed, January 09, 2019
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Citizen scientists discover rare exoplanet

Citizen scientists discover rare exoplanet

It orbits a bright dwarf star only about 53 light years away in the Reticulum constellation and is thought to have a surface temperature of about 1,650C - a relatively cool temperature considering its proximity to its star.

NASA has announced that TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has discovered a third "small" planet outside our solar system.

HD 21749b completes one orbit of its host star, which is almost as bright as our sun, every 36 Earth days.

Since it started surveying the sky in July, the MIT-led Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite project has identified Pi Mensae b, a "super-Earth" that travels around its star every six days, and LHS 3844b, a rocky world with an orbit of only 11 hours. Citizen scientists using data from NASA's Kepler space telescope, discovered a planet roughly twice the size of Earth located within its star's habitable zone, the range of orbital distances where liquid water may exist on the planet's surface. Why scientists are saying the new planet's surface is relatively cool is because its star is nearly as bright as our very own Sun, the team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston said.

The new planet is 23 times bigger than our own Earth, meaning it highly likely to be gaseous rather than rocky, and it has an atmosphere more dense than Neptune or Uranus.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", Dragomir said.

Experts still aren't sure whether the planet hosts life, but say if plants were transferred there, they would likely survive.

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On the bright side, there is evidence of a second, still unconfirmed planet in the same system, this one with a much shorter 7.8-day orbit.

"It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon", said Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student who discussed the discovery on Monday, Jan. 7, at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

Like NASA's recently departed Kepler space telescope, TESS watches for the faint dip in light that occurs when an unseen planet passes in front of a star's disk. The exoplanet lies in the stellar system K2-288, which has two dim, cool stars. "But we had this one transit, and knew something was there". The detection of planet K2-288Bb, which orbits one of the stars in a binary system located 226 light-years from Earth, took advantage of archived Kepler data as well as the sharp eyes of citizen scientists participating in the Exoplanet Explorers program.

They also used data from the Planet Finder Spectrograph, an instrument installed on the Magellan Telescope in Chile, to further validate their findings and constrain the planet's mass and orbit.

As it turned out, though, the team wasn't actually analyzing all of the data. "But we re-extracted the data and zoomed in to look more carefully, and found what looked like the end of a transit". "But we were lucky and we caught the signals, and they were really clear".

Astronomers are now conducting follow-up observations on more than 280 exoplanet candidates.

"We've confirmed three planets so far, and there are so many more that are just waiting for telescope and people time to be confirmed", Dragomir says. Additional partners include Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia; NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley; the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts; MIT Lincoln Laboratory; and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

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