Three exocomets found circling Beta Pictoris

The uncertainty of science: By analyzing data from the new space telescope TESS, astronomers think they have identified three exocomets orbiting the nearby star Beta Pictoris.

Why do I label this uncertain? Let the scientists themselves illustrate my doubt:

Sebastian Zieba, Master’s student in the team of Konstanze Zwintz at the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck, discovered the signal of the exocomets when he investigated the TESS light curve of Beta Pictoris in March this year. “The data showed a significant decrease in the intensity of the light of the observed star. These variations due to darkening by an object in the star’s orbit can clearly be related to a comet,” Sebastian Zieba and Konstanze Zwintz explain the sensational discovery.

The press release provides no other information about why they think this darkening is because of comets rather than exoplanets or some other phenomenon. Based on this alone, I find this report very doubtful and highly speculative.

In related news, astronomers now claim they have detected eighteen more Earth-sized exoplanets in the data produced by Kepler, and they have done so by applying new algorithms to the data.

Large planets tend to produce deep and clear brightness variations of their host stars so that the subtle center-to-limb brightness variation on the star hardly plays a role in their discovery. Small planets, however, present scientists with immense challenges. Their effect on the stellar brightness is so small that it is extremely hard to distinguish from the natural brightness fluctuations of the star and from the noise that necessarily comes with any kind of observation. René Heller’s team has now been able to show that the sensitivity of the transit method can be significantly improved, if a more realistic light curve is assumed in the search algorithm. “Our new algorithm helps to draw a more realistic picture of the exoplanet population in space,” summarizes Michael Hippke of Sonneberg Observatory. “This method constitutes a significant step forward, especially in the search for Earth-like planets.”

This makes sense, but it must be understood that these are only candidate exoplanets, unconfirmed as yet. I would not be surprised if a majority are found to be false positives.