NASA Planet Hunter Discovers Third New Planet

NASA  Goddard

NASA's TESS mission, which will survey the entire sky over the next two years, has already discovered three new exoplanets around nearby stars.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) which launched Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (Tess) for searching exoplanets in April, 2018 has discovered a third small planet outside our solar system.

NASA's planet-hunting telescope is making landmark discoveries at an astonishing pace and has now confirmed discovery of a third new planet and a handful of exploding stars in our "cosmic backyard". Indeed, HD 21749b is very far-flung for TESS; two other smallish worlds found by the mission have orbital periods of 11 hours and 6.3 days, respectively. The team, however, needed at least three transits to claim the discovery of a candidate planet and they did not find a third signal in the observations they reviewed. The exoplanet likely has an average surface temperature around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius), discovery team members said.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", Diana Dragomir, a postdoc in MIT Kavli Institute who led this latest discovery, said in a statement.

Estimated to be about 1.9 times Earth's size, K2-288Bb is half the size of Neptune. But it is unlikely that the planet is rocky and therefore habitable; it's more likely made of gas, of a kind that is much more dense than the atmospheres of either Neptune or Uranus.

Although NASA's Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel and ended its mission in 2018, citizen scientists have used its data to discover an exoplanet 226 light-years away in the Taurus constellation.

"It's the coolest small planet that we know of around a star this bright", Dragomir said. This is likely the result of intense starlight breaking up atmospheric molecules and eroding away the atmospheres of some planets over time, leaving behind two populations.

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They searched Kepler data for evidence of transits, the regular dimming of a star when an orbiting planet moves across the star's face.

The discovery, discussed at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and in pre-print at arXiv, is just one of several now coming thick and fast for TESS. This means it is most likely a gaseous planet, rather than rocky like Earth.

The satellite trains its four onboard cameras on each sector for 27 days, taking in light from the stars in that particular segment before shifting to view the next one.

Launched in April 2018 for a two-year mission, Tess will survey almost the entire sky by monitoring and piecing together overlapping slices of the night sky. The satellite will spend the first year surveying the sky in the Southern Hemisphere, before swiveling around to take in the Northern Hemisphere sky. Dr. Ricker briefly touched on a potential extended mission for the planet-hunting telescope that would begin in 2020 and carry on until 2022, in which it would look at additional sectors of the sky that were missed during its first years of operation. For their new analysis, the researchers looked through this data, collected between July 25 and October 14.

The team initially spotted an intriguing signal from the HD 21749 system in TESS's "sector 1" data. Because TESS is programmed to look at a portion of the sky for only 27 days, any planets with a longer orbit are hard to identify. That's actually quite cool, considering how close the planet is to its star.

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.

"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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