NASA's planet-hunter TESS makes first discoveries

Weird'Sub-Neptune Exoplanet Discovered by NASA Space Telescope

Weird'Sub-Neptune Exoplanet Discovered by NASA Space Telescope

All three planets were discovered in the first three months of TESS observations.

Dubbed HD 21749b, the globe orbits a nearby dwarf star about 53 light years from Earth, in the constellation Reticulum, and appears to have the longest orbital period of the triad.

The planet is in the K2-288 system, which contains a pair of dim, cool M-type stars that are 5.1 billion miles apart, about six times the distance between Saturn and the sun.

The discovery was announced Monday at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle.

The surface of the new planet is likely around 300 degrees Fahrenheit and is relatively cool, given its proximity to its star, which is nearly as bright as the sun, said the team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", said Diana Dragomir, a postdoc in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, who led the discovery.

"We learned from Kepler that there are more planets than stars in our sky, and now TESS will open our eyes to the variety of planets around some of the closest stars", Paul Hertz, the director of NASA's astrophysics division, said in March 2018. This means it is most likely a gaseous planet, rather than rocky like Earth.

"We think this planet wouldn't be as gaseous as Neptune or Uranus, which are mostly hydrogen and really puffy", Dragomir says. "The planet likely has a density of water, or a thick atmosphere".

The exoplanet, known as K2-288Bb, is about twice the size of Earth and orbits within the habitable zone of its star, meaning liquid water may exist on its surface. About 50 of them may be the same size and temperature as Earth.

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How a small inner planet stays on that path as a bigger planet lurches on an elliptical orbit around the same star is a mystery. It's probably a "lava world", Huang said, given how close some of the planet's rocky surface is to its star.

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.

Tess has also detected dozens of short-lived events, including images of six supernovae in distant galaxies that were later seen by ground-based telescopes.

"Some of the most interesting science occurs in the early days of a supernova, which has been very hard to observe before TESS", said Michael Fausnaugh, a TESS researcher at the MIT Kavli Institute.

The team began follow-up observations using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility (the latter two in Hawaii), and also examined data from ESA's (the European Space Agency's) Gaia mission. "TESS found as many in its first month".

TESS does this work by carving the sky up into overlapping sectors, studying each one for 27 days at a time.

TESS is in the process of scanning the entire southern sky, after which it will turn and canvass the northern sky.

In 2017, Adina Feinstein, from the University of Chicago, and Makennah Bristow, from the University of North Carolina Asheville, who worked as interns with NASA astrophysicist Joshua Schlieder, were looking for evidence of transits, or the regular dimming of the star that occurs when an orbiting planet moves across its surface. Of these, officials anticipate, 300 will be Earth-size exoplanets or double-Earth-size Super Earths. Its size is rare among exoplanets - planets beyond our solar system.

Tess monitors sections of the sky and waits for momentary dips in the light of about 200,000 nearby stars, likely to be a sign that a planet has passed in front of that star.

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