NASA's planet finder discovers weird new world and 6 six exploding stars

Gwen Vasquez
January 9, 2019

Citizen scientists have discovered a potentially habitable exoplanet about twice the size of Earth, located 226 light-years away, that may have liquid water on its surface.

There might be yet another planet that's a bit smaller than Earth and orbits even closer to the star HD 21749, making a complete round every eight days. But scientists require a third transit before claiming the discovery of a candidate planet, and there wasn't a third signal in the observations they reviewed.

The planet has an orbit of 36 days and a surface temperature of about 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

"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 USA, who led the discovery. NASA said the brighter star is half the size of the sun. "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.

A freaky planet at least 23 times the mass of Earth, unveiled on 7 January, is among the confirmed planets-some of which have been reported before. It is also a whopping 23 times as massive as Earth.

"We think this planet wouldn't be as gaseous as Neptune or Uranus, which are mostly hydrogen and really puffy", Dragomir said.

Diana Dragomir, who led a research paper into the discovery, said this presented an exciting opportunity for researchers.

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There is also evidence that a second planet could exist in this system with a 7.8-day orbit - which could be the first Earth-size planet dicovered by TESS.

The exoplanet, named K2-288Bb, could either be a rocky world like Earth or a gas-rich planet like Neptune. Possible planets can be spotted by studying dips in light when the planet moves before its star.

It was identified by TESS -NASA's leading mission to identify exoplanets - alongside two other worlds (pictured). Every six days, the new planet orbits the star Pi Mensae, located about 60 light-years away and visible to the unaided eye in the southern constellation Mensa.

The discovery is unique for a number of reasons - not least of which is that it was made by amateur astronomers - but the biggest surprise for scientists was its size. The findings from TESS are meant to provide a guide for more detailed observations by space telescopes yet to be built, including the European Space Agency's CHEOPS planet-hunting probe and NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

"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 MKI. NASA's Kepler space telescope which shut operations in October 2018, was the one to make these findings. "TESS found as many in its first month". Over the course of two years, the four wide-field cameras on board will stare at different sectors of the sky for days at a time. The planet orbits a binary star system consisting of two stars that are smaller than our own Sun.

While impressive, it does not appear the planet has the attributes required to support life as a habitable world.

Feinstein and Makennah Bristow, an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville, worked as interns at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, searching the data for transits.

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