Published: Wed, January 09, 2019
Science | By Cecil Little

NASA Exoplanet Hunter Racks Up Bizarre Worlds and Exploding Stars

NASA Exoplanet Hunter Racks Up Bizarre Worlds and Exploding Stars

The latest exoplanet on the list is HD 21749b, which orbits a star that's about 80 percent as massive as our sun, located about 53 light-years away in the southern constellation Reticulum.

The new exoplanet, named HD 21749b, was discovered by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched in April.

Compared to TESS's other two sightings-Pi Mensae b, a "super-Earth" with a 6.3-day orbit, and LHS 3844b, a rocky world that speeds around its star in 11 hours-HD 21749b is downright lazy, taking 36 days to complete one rotation. These three planets were all discovered in the first three months of TESS observations. As hot as that is, it's cool considering the proximity to the host star, which is said to be nearly as bright as the sun.

This year, Kevin Hardegree-Ullman, postdoctoral scholar in astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, announced that the Spitzer space telescope followed up on that discovery and discovered a sixth planet, K2-138 g, smaller than Neptune, that orbits the star every 42 days. "We know a lot about atmospheres of hot planets, but because it's very hard to find small planets that orbit farther from their stars, and are therefore cooler, we haven't been able to learn much about these smaller, cooler planets". "If confirmed, it will be the smallest planet we have found to date", study co-author Chelsea Huang, a colleague of Dragomir's at the MIT Kavli Institute, said today during a briefing at the American Astronomical Society's winter meeting in Seattle. Few planets that orbit close to their stars are more than 1.5 times as large as Earth, yet K2-288Bb is estimated to be roughly 1.9 times the size of our planet.

The researchers have also detected evidence of another planet, smaller than the others, which could be the first Earth-sized discovery by Tess.

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The new world, known as K2-288Bb, could be rocky or could be a gas-rich planet similar to Neptune. "The planet likely has a density of water, or a thick atmosphere", Dragomir said.

"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, University of Chicago graduate student and lead author of the paper on the discovery, published by the Astronomical Journal.

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.

She and her colleagues compared the pattern to the first full transit they had originally discovered, and found a near flawless match - an indication that the planet passed again in front of its star, in a 36-day orbit. This is relatively cool considering its proximity to its star.

"They had looked at this star system a decade ago and never announced anything because they weren't sure if they were looking at a planet versus the activity of the star", Dragomir says.

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As far as what the planet may be like, the jury is still out.

It turned out that they did not analyze all of the data. "TESS found as many in its first month".

The pair were working as interns with Joshua Schlieder, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, at the time.

Follow-up observations were made with multiple telescopes to confirm the exoplanet.

So the reprocessed, "cleaned-up" light curves were uploaded through the Exoplanet Explorers project on online platform Zooniverse, and the public was invited to "go forth and find us planets", Feinstein said. More than a dozen universities, research institutes, and observatories worldwide are participants in the mission.

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