Tag Archives: exoplanets

New theory says evaporating exomoon explains Tabby’s Star

Astronomers have proposed a new theory for the random and inexplicable light variations that Tabby’s Star undergoes, a melting and evaporating exomoon.

The Columbia team suggests that Tabby’s Star abducted an exomoon from a now long-gone, nearby planet and pulled it into orbit around itself, where it has been getting torn apart by stronger stellar radiation than existed in its former orbit. Chunks of the exomoon’s dusty outer layers of ice, gas, and carbonaceous rock have been able to withstand the radiation blow-out pressure that ejects smaller-grain dust clouds, and the volatile, large-grain material has inherited the exomoon’s new orbit around Tabby’s Star, where it forms a disk that persistently blocks the star’s light. The opaqueness of the disk can change slowly, as smaller-grain clouds pass through and larger particles stuck in orbit move from the disk toward Tabby’s Star, eventually getting so hot that they melt and fall onto the star’s surface.

Ultimately, after millions of years, the exomoon orbiting Tabby’s Star will completely evaporate, the researchers suggest.

The article does not explain why the theory requires this exoplanet to have once been a moon to another exoplanet, now gone. It seems to me that this is adding unnecessary complexity to the solution, but I have not read the paper itself, so their might be reasons.


Water found on exoplanet in habitable zone

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers now believe they have detected water in the atmosphere of an exoplanet that is also in habitable zone.

A new study by Professor Björn Benneke of the Institute for Research on Exoplanets at the Université de Montréal, his doctoral student Caroline Piaulet and several of their collaborators reports the detection of water vapour and perhaps even liquid water clouds in the atmosphere of the planet K2-18b.

…This exoplanet is about nine times more massive than our Earth and is found in the habitable zone of the star it orbits. This M-type star is smaller and cooler than our Sun, but due to K2-18b’s close proximity to its star, the planet receives almost the same total amount of energy from its star as our Earth receives from the Sun.

The size and mass of the this exoplanet means life as we know it probably does not exist there, either on its surface or in its atmosphere. Nonetheless, with water and the right amount of energy, anything is still possible.


Astronomers find Jupiter-sized exoplanet with comet-like orbit

Worlds without end: Astronomers have discovered a Jupiter-sized exoplanet with an extremely eccentric and comet-like orbit circling a star about 103 light years away.

Astronomers have discovered a planet three times the mass of Jupiter that travels on a long, egg-shaped path around its star. If this planet were somehow placed into our own solar system, it would swing from within our asteroid belt to out beyond Neptune. Other giant planets with highly elliptical orbits have been found around other stars, but none of those worlds were located at the very outer reaches of their star systems like this one.

This discovery, like so many others, illustrates again our lack of knowledge about the make-up and formation of solar systems. According to modern formation theories, you shouldn’t get such a large exoplanet in such an eccentric orbit. But here we are.


Data suggests Earth-sized exoplanet has no atmosphere and resembles Mercury

Using archive data from the Spitze Space Telescope astronomers believe that an Earth-sized exoplanet about 49 light years away probably has no atmosphere and is likely similar to Mercury.

Discovered in 2018 by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey (TESS) mission, planet LHS 3844b is located 48.6 light-years from Earth and has a radius 1.3 times that of Earth. It orbits a small, cool type of star called an M dwarf – especially noteworthy because, as the most common and long-lived type of star in the Milky Way galaxy, M dwarfs may host a high percentage of the total number of planets in the galaxy.

…The Spitzer observations rule out an atmosphere with more than 10 times the pressure of Earth’s. (Measured in units called bars, Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level is about 1 bar.) An atmosphere between 1 and 10 bars on LHS 3844b has been almost entirely ruled out as well, although the authors note there’s a slim chance it could exist if the stellar and planetary properties were to meet some very specific and unlikely criteria. They also argue that with the planet so close to a star, a thin atmosphere would be stripped away by the star’s intense radiation and outflow of material (often called stellar winds).

For a planet to be in the habitable zone of a M dwarf it must orbit very close to the star. This research suggests that conditions that close to the star might still preclude the possibility of life.


Second gas giant found orbiting Beta Pictoris

Astronomers today announced that they have detected another exoplanet orbiting the young star Beta Pictoris 63 light years away.

This time, the team had to analyse more than 10 years of high-resolution data, obtained with the HARPS instrument at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, in order to indirectly detect the presence of β Pictoris c. This second giant planet, which has a mass nine times that of Jupiter, completes its orbit in roughly 1,200 days, and is relatively close to its star (approximately the distance between the Sun and the asteroid belt, whereas β Pictoris b is 3.3 times more distant).

Because Beta Pictoris has a very large disk of material, astronomers have expected to find exoplanets there for decades. Only in the last two decades have their instruments improved enough to allow the detections. Moreover, because the star is young, astronomers believe it gives them a glimpse into what our solar system looked like during its early formation period.


A heavy metal exoplanet, a star with no iron

Two strangely related astronomy stories to start the day:

The first describes a weird planet so hot that metals are gas in the atmosphere:

A scorching planet, WASP-121b orbits precariously close to a star that is even hotter than our Sun. The intense radiation heats the planet’s upper atmosphere to a blazing 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Apparently, the lower atmosphere is still so hot that iron and magnesium remain in gaseous form and stream to the upper atmosphere, where they escape into space on the coattails of hydrogen and helium gas.

The sizzling planet is also so close to its star that it is on the cusp of being ripped apart by the star’s intense pull. This hugging distance means that the planet is stretched into a football shape due to gravitational tidal forces.

The presence of so much heavy elements suggests this planet and star formed relatively recently in the history of the universe, after many generations of star formation made possible the creation of those elements.

The second describes a star so devoid of iron that it hints of the first stars that ever formed.

The very first stars in the Universe are thought to have consisted of only hydrogen and helium, along with traces of lithium. These elements were created in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, while all heavier elements have emerged from the heat and pressure of cataclysmic supernovae – titanic explosions of stars. Stars like the Sun that are rich in heavy element therefore contain material from many generations of stars exploding as supernovae.

As none of the first stars have yet been found, their properties remain hypothetical. They were long expected to have been incredibly massive, perhaps hundreds of times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded in incredibly energetic supernovae known as hypernovae.

The confirmation of the anaemic SMSS J160540.18–144323.1, although itself not one of the first stars, adds a powerful bit of evidence.

Dr Nordlander and colleagues suggest that the star was formed after one of the first stars exploded. That exploding star is found to have been rather unimpressive, just ten times more massive than the Sun, and to have exploded only feebly (by astronomical scales) so that most of the heavy elements created in the supernova fell back into the remnant neutron star left behind.

Only a small amount of newly forged iron escaped the remnant’s gravitational pull and went on, in concert with far larger amounts of lighter elements, to form a new star – one of the very first second generation stars, that has now been discovered.

All the the science and data with both stories is highly uncertain. Both however point to the complex and hardly understood process that made us possible.


More exoplanets found by TESS

Worlds without end: In confirming a candidate exoplanet previously discovered by TESS, astronomers have detected two more exoplanets orbiting the same star.

The transits TESS observed belong to GJ 357 b, a planet about 22% larger than Earth. It orbits 11 times closer to its star than Mercury does our Sun. This gives it an equilibrium temperature — calculated without accounting for the additional warming effects of a possible atmosphere — of around 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). “We describe GJ 357 b as a ‘hot Earth,’” explains co-author Enric Pallé, an astrophysicist at the IAC and Luque’s doctoral supervisor. “Although it cannot host life, it is noteworthy as the third-nearest transiting exoplanet known to date and one of the best rocky planets we have for measuring the composition of any atmosphere it may possess.”

But while researchers were looking at ground-based data to confirm the existence of the hot Earth, they uncovered two additional worlds. The farthest-known planet, named GJ 357 d, is especially intriguing. “GJ 357 d is located within the outer edge of its star’s habitable zone, where it receives about the same amount of stellar energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun,” said co-author Diana Kossakowski at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. “If the planet has a dense atmosphere, which will take future studies to determine, it could trap enough heat to warm the planet and allow liquid water on its surface.”

Without an atmosphere, it has an equilibrium temperature of -64 F (-53 C), which would make the planet seem more glacial than habitable. The planet weighs at least 6.1 times Earth’s mass, and orbits the star every 55.7 days at a range about 20% of Earth’s distance from the Sun. The planet’s size and composition are unknown, but a rocky world with this mass would range from about one to two times Earth’s size.

Even through TESS monitored the star for about a month, Luque’s team predicts any transit would have occurred outside the TESS observing window.

I think the results from TESS are soon going to overwhelm the general press. I myself had to check and make sure this story was about different exoplanets than the previous exoplanet discovery story from two days ago.

What is most interesting about these new exoplanets is their mass and size. TESS appears so far to be finding a lot of superEarths, something that Kepler did not do.


TESS finds the first two mini-Neptune exoplanets

In discovering three candidate exoplanets orbiting a nearby red dwarf star, the space telescope TESS has found the first two that are sized somewhere between the rocky Earth-sized planets and the larger Neptune-sized gas giants.

The innermost planet, TOI 270 b, is likely a rocky world about 25% larger than Earth. It orbits the star every 3.4 days at a distance about 13 times closer than Mercury orbits the Sun. Based on statistical studies of known exoplanets of similar size, the science team estimates TOI 270 b has a mass around 1.9 times greater than Earth’s. Due to its proximity to the star, planet b is an oven-hot world. Its equilibrium temperature — that is, the temperature based only on energy it receives from the star, which ignores additional warming effects from a possible atmosphere — is around 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius).

The other two planets, TOI 270 c and d, are, respectively, 2.4 and 2.1 times larger than Earth and orbit the star every 5.7 and 11.4 days. Although only about half its size, both may be similar to Neptune in our solar system, with compositions dominated by gases rather than rock, and they likely weigh around 7 and 5 times Earth’s mass, respectively.

All of the planets are expected to be tidally locked to the star, which means they only rotate once every orbit and keep the same side facing the star at all times, just as the Moon does in its orbit around Earth.

Planet c and d might best be described as mini-Neptunes, a type of planet not seen in our own solar system. The researchers hope further exploration of TOI 270 may help explain how two of these mini-Neptunes formed alongside a nearly Earth-size world.

The star is only 73 light years away.

Need I say that our level of knowledge about solar system formation is tiny at this point, and that any models any theorist creates should merely be seen as scratchpad first approximations, useful only in guiding future research and not to be taken too seriously.


TESS completes survey of southern hemisphere

The space telescope TESS has completed its first year in orbit, surveying the entire southern hemisphere for transient events.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has discovered 21 planets outside our solar system and captured data on other interesting events occurring in the southern sky during its first year of science. TESS has now turned its attention to the Northern Hemisphere to complete the most comprehensive planet-hunting expedition ever undertaken.

TESS began hunting for exoplanets (or worlds orbiting distant stars) in the southern sky in July of 2018, while also collecting data on supernovae, black holes and other phenomena in its line of sight. Along with the planets TESS has discovered, the mission has identified over 850 candidate exoplanets that are waiting for confirmation by ground-based telescopes.

It is important to emphasize that these are candidate exoplanets. They still need to be confirmed by other observations.


LightSail-2 to deploy sail July 23

The LightSail-2 engineering team has decided to attempt deployment of the light sail on July 23.

The spacecraft is a cubesat about the size of a loaf of bread. Once deployed, the light sail will be about the size of a boxing ring. If deployment is successful, they will then attempt to use the sail and sunlight to change the sail’s orbit, thus learning the techniques for using light to travel through space.


Astronomers map exoplanet atmosphere of super-Earth

Worlds without end: Using both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have characterized the atmosphere of an exoplanet with a mass between that of the Earth and Neptune.

Astronomers enlisted the combined multi-wavelength capabilities NASA’s Hubble snd Spitzer space telescopes to do a first-of-a-kind study of GJ 3470 b’s atmosphere. This was accomplished by measuring the absorption of starlight as the planet passed in front of its star (transit) and the loss of reflected light from the planet as it passed behind the star (eclipse). All totaled, the space telescopes observed 12 transits and 20 eclipses. The science of analyzing chemical fingerprints based on light is called “spectroscopy.”

“For the first time we have a spectroscopic signature of such a world,” said Benneke. But he is at a loss for classification: Should it be called a “super-Earth” or “sub-Neptune?” Or perhaps something else?

Fortuitously, the atmosphere of GJ 3470 b turned out to be mostly clear, with only thin hazes, enabling the scientists to probe deep into the atmosphere. “We expected an atmosphere strongly enriched in heavier elements like oxygen and carbon which are forming abundant water vapor and methane gas, similar to what we see on Neptune”, said Benneke. “Instead, we found an atmosphere that is so poor in heavy elements that its composition resembles the hydrogen/helium rich composition of the Sun.”

To me, our knowledge of exoplanets today is beginning to resemble our knowledge of the planets in the solar system c. 1950. The little data we have gives us a vague idea of what’s there, but there are so many gaps and uncertainties that no one should be confident about drawing any firm conclusions.


TESS finds exoplanet smaller than Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has now found an exoplanet somewhere between Mars and the Earth in size, and is part of a solar system with two other Earth-sized planets.

L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans. While L 98-59b is a record for TESS, even smaller planets have been discovered in data collected by NASA’s Kepler satellite, including Kepler-37b, which is only 20% larger than the Moon.

The two other worlds in the system, L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are respectively around 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s size. All three were discovered by TESS using transits, periodic dips in the star’s brightness caused when each planet passes in front of it.

None of these planets is considered in the habitable zone however. Instead, they experience solar energies comparable to Venus.


Two Earthlike planets possibly found around neaby red dwarf star

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers think they may have detected evidence of two Earth-sized planets orbiting a tiny red dwarf star only twelve light years away.

Ribas and his colleagues are currently searching for planets orbiting 342 small stars, so they aimed the CARMENES instrument, located at Spain’s Calar Alto Observatory, at the mini-star.

CARMENES observed Teegarden’s star over three years, watching for the wiggles and tugs produced by any orbiting planets. In the end, more than 200 measurements suggested that two small worlds are jostling the star, each weighing in at approximately 1.1 times Earth’s mass. The team calculates that one of the planets, called Teegarden’s star b, completed an orbit in a mere 4.9 Earth-days; the other world, Teegarden’s star c, has an orbit of just 11.4 days.

There is great uncertainty in these results, as the article correctly notes. However, if confirmed these planets could be the home of a very ancient civilization, considering that the red dwarf star is already twice as old as our Sun. There also could be no life there at all, as red dwarf stars tend to be very lacking in many of the materials needed for life.


Five exoplanets discovered with orbits from 15 to 40 years long

Twenty years of observations have now resulted in the discovery of five exoplanets with long solar orbits ranging from 15 to 40 years.

“As early as 1998, a planetary monitoring programme was set up and carried out scrupulously by the many … observers [using the EULER telescope belonging to Geneva University, Switzerland,] who took turns every two weeks in La Silla [Chile] for 20 years”, says Emily Rickman. The result is remarkable: five new planets have been discovered and the orbits of four others known have been precisely defined. All these planets have periods of revolution between 15.6 and 40.4 years, with masses ranging approximately from 3 to 27 times that of Jupiter. This study contributes to increasing the list of 26 planets with a rotation period greater than 15 years.

The press release is very poorly written. It does not explain how 21 years of observations pinpointed the orbit of an exoplanet of forty years. I suspect they have seen enough of the star’s wobble to extrapolate that orbit, but the press release should have explained this.


Tess finds Earth-sized planet?

Scientists using the space telescope TESS think they may have found its first Earth-sized planet.

Its host star has about 80 percent of the mass of our Sun and is found about 53 light-years distant from Earth. HD 21749b has about 23 times Earth’s mass and a radius of about 2.7 times Earth’s. Its density indicates the planet has substantial atmosphere but is not rocky, so it could potentially help astronomers understand the composition and evolution of cooler sub-Neptune planet atmospheres.

Excitingly, the longer period sub-Neptune planet in this system is not alone. It has a sibling planet, HD 21749c, which takes about eight days to orbit the host star and is much smaller—similar in size to Earth. “Measuring the exact mass and composition of such a small planet will be challenging, but important for comparing HD 21749c to Earth,” said Wang. “Carnegie’s PFS team is continuing to collect data on this object with this goal in mind.”

In other words, they know almost nothing yet about the smaller exoplanet. They think it is similar in size to the Earth, but they don’t know its mass or composition.


Scientists confirm first exoplanet candidate found by Kepler

Worlds without end: Ten years after Kepler was launched into space to find exoplanets, astronomers have finally confirmed one of the space telescopes thousands of candidates.

Despite being the very first planet candidate discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, the object now known as Kepler-1658 b had a rocky road to confirmation. The initial estimate of the size of the planet’s host star was incorrect, so the sizes of both the star and Kepler-1658 b were vastly underestimated. It was later set aside as a false positive when the numbers didn’t quite make sense for the effects seen on its star for a body of that size. Fortuitously, Chontos’ first year graduate research project, which focused on re-analyzing Kepler host stars, happened at just the right time.

“Our new analysis, which uses stellar sound waves observed in the Kepler data to characterize the host star, demonstrated that the star is in fact three times larger than previously thought. This in turn means that the planet is three times larger, revealing that Kepler-1658 b is actually a hot Jupiter-like planet,” said Chontos. With this refined analysis, everything pointed to the object truly being a planet, but confirmation from new observations was still needed.

“We alerted Dave Latham (a senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and co-author on the paper) and his team collected the necessary spectroscopic data to unambiguously show that Kepler-1658 b is a planet,” said Dan Huber, co-author and astronomer at the University of Hawaiʻi. “As one of the pioneers of exoplanet science and a key figure behind the Kepler mission, it was particularly fitting to have Dave be part of this confirmation.”

It is important to remember that until scientists obtain independent data on each of these candidates, they are not yet confirmed as exoplanets, and might only be false positives. To do this, however, is going to take a lot of work and time.


TESS spots first exoplanets plus supernovae and more

The Transiting Exoplanet Surveying Satellite (TESS) has successful spotted its first exoplanets.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found three confirmed exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, in its first three months of observations.

The mission’s sensitive cameras also captured 100 short-lived changes — most of them likely stellar outbursts — in the same region of the sky. They include six supernova explosions whose brightening light was recorded by TESS even before the outbursts were discovered by ground-based telescopes.

These discoveries confirm that the spacecraft is operating exactly as designed. Now comes the herculean task of analyzing the gigantic amount of data it is pouring down to see what is hidden there.


SuperEarth orbiting Barnard’s Star?

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers have discovered a candidate exoplanet orbiting Barnard’s Star, the closest single star to our solar system and the second closest stellar system after Alpha Centauri.

The planet candidate, named Barnard’s star b (or GJ 699 b), is a super-Earth with a minimum of 3.2 Earth masses. It orbits its cool red parent star every 233 days near the snow-line, a distance where water would be frozen. In the absence of an atmosphere, its temperature is likely to be about -150 ºC, which makes it unlikely that the planet can sustain liquid water on its surface. However, its characteristics make it an excellent target for direct imaging using the next generation of instruments such as NASA’s Wide Field InfraRed Survey Telescope (WFIRST, [3]), and maybe with observations from the ESA mission Gaia [4].

The reason I put a question mark in the headline is that this is not the first time a candidate exoplanet has been proposed to orbit Barnard’s Star. In the 1960s astronomer Peter van de Kemp claimed the star had at least one gas giant orbiting it every 24 years. It was later found that the periodic motion variations he measured were due to “to an artifact of maintenance and upgrade work” at the telescope he was using.

The result above has not been confirmed by other means, so they must list this superEarth as a candidate exoplanet. More observations are necessary to confirm it.


NASA officially retires Kepler

NASA today officially retired Kepler after nine years of operations.

After nine years in deep space collecting data that indicate our sky to be filled with billions of hidden planets – more planets even than stars – NASA’s Kepler space telescope has run out of fuel needed for further science operations. NASA has decided to retire the spacecraft within its current, safe orbit, away from Earth. Kepler leaves a legacy of more than 2,600 planet discoveries from outside our solar system, many of which could be promising places for life.

Exoplanet hunting however does not end here. Unlike Hubble, astronomers and NASA planned ahead for Kepler’s demise, and this year launched TESS to continue its work, in an even more sophisticated manner.


Number of candidate exo-Earths reduced by Gaia data

Worlds without end: The number of candidate exo-Earths identified by Kepler has now been reduced based on data from Europe’s Gaia telescope.

To date, NASA’s prolific Kepler space telescope has discovered about 30 roughly Earth-size exoplanets in their host stars’ “habitable zone” — the range of orbital distances at which liquid water can likely exist on a world’s surface.

Or so researchers had thought. New observations by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Gaia spacecraft suggest that the actual number is probably significantly smaller — perhaps between two and 12, NASA officials said today.

Gaia launched in December of 2013 to create an ultraprecise 3D map of the Milky Way. So far, this map includes position information for about 1.7 billion stars and distance data for about 1.3 billion stars, according to NASA officials. Gaia’s observations suggest that some of the Kepler host stars are brighter and bigger than previously believed, the officials added. Planets orbiting such stars are therefore likely larger and hotter than previously thought.

Being hotter and larger, the habitable zone for these stars shifts outward, placing the exoEarth’s outside the habitable zone.


Giant planets around young star defy model predictions

The uncertainty of science: The recent discovery of four Saturn/Jupiter-sized planets orbiting a star only about two million years old throws a wrench into all existing solar system formation theories.

The star, CI Tau, is located about 500 light years away in a highly-productive stellar ‘nursery’ region of the galaxy. Its four planets differ greatly in their orbits: the closest (the hot Jupiter) is within the equivalent of the orbit of Mercury, while the farthest orbits at a distance more than three times greater than that of Neptune. The two outer planets are about the mass of Saturn, while the two inner planets are respectively around one and 10 times the mass of Jupiter.

The discovery raises many questions for astronomers. Around 1% of stars host hot Jupiters, but most of the known hot Jupiters are hundreds of times older than CI Tau. “It is currently impossible to say whether the extreme planetary architecture seen in CI Tau is common in hot Jupiter systems because the way that these sibling planets were detected – through their effect on the protoplanetary disc – would not work in older systems which no longer have a protoplanetary disc,” said Professor Cathie Clarke from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, the study’s first author.

According to the researchers, it is also unclear whether the sibling planets played a role in driving the innermost planet into its ultra-close orbit, and whether this is a mechanism that works in making hot Jupiters in general. And a further mystery is how the outer two planets formed at all.

“Planet formation models tend to focus on being able to make the types of planets that have been observed already, so new discoveries don’t necessarily fit the models,” said Clarke. “Saturn mass planets are supposed to form by first accumulating a solid core and then pulling in a layer of gas on top, but these processes are supposed to be very slow at large distances from the star. Most models will struggle to make planets of this mass at this distance.” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the present models are absurdly premature. We simply don’t know enough to formulate any theory that can be taken seriously.

This is not to say that models shouldn’t be formulated, only to emphasize that no one should consider them predictive of any part of reality. They give astronomers some guidance on what to look for, but if they take them too seriously they might not look in the right places.


The first exomoon found?

Worlds without end: Scientists using data from the Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler have detected evidence that suggests the discovery of the first moon outside our solar system.

The data indicate an exomoon the size of Neptune, in a stellar system 8000 light-years from Earth. The new results are presented in the journal Science Advances.

…In 2017 NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope detected hints of an exomoon orbiting the planet Kepler-1625b. Now, two scientists from Columbia University in New York (USA) have used the incomparable capabilities of the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to study the star Kepler-1625, 8000 light-years away, and its planet in more detail. The new observations made with Hubble show compelling evidence for a large exomoon orbiting the only known planet of Kepler-1625. If confirmed, this would be the first discovery of a moon outside our Solar System.

The candidate moon, with the designation Kepler-1625b-i, is unusual because of its large size; it is comparable in diameter to the planet Neptune. Such gargantuan moons are unknown in our own Solar System. “This may yield new insights into the development of planetary systems and may cause astronomers to revisit theories of how moons form,” Alex Teachey, a graduate student who led the study, explained excitedly.

Like its moon, Kepler-1625b is also bigger than its counterparts in the Solar System. The exoplanet is a gas giant, several times more massive than Jupiter. It orbits its parent star at a distance similar to the distance between the Sun and Earth, which puts it — and its candidate moon — at the inner edge of the habitable zone of the star system.

The alien nature of this solar system should not surprise us. If anything, it is only a hint at the wild and exotic solar systems we have yet to discover.


Vulcan found?

Scientists have found a super-earth orbiting 40 Eridani-A, a star located sixteen light years away and proposed by Gene Roddenberry in 1991 as the home star for his race of logical Vulcans.

It turns out the letter authors’ prediction was right — a world really does orbit the primary star of the three-star 40 Eridani system. (Whether it’s home to a logic-based alien society, though, is anyone’s guess!)

The world is a super-Earth, the most common type of planet in the galaxy (though a type that’s missing from our solar system). At twice Earth’s radius and eight to nine times its mass, 40 Eridani b sits on the line that divides rocky super-Earths from gaseous ones. The planet orbits its star every 42 days, putting just inside the system’s habitable zone — in other words, where it’s nice and hot. At 16 light-years away, it’s the closest super-Earth known and therefore a good potential target for followup observations.

The discovery was made by a survey taking place using a relatively small telescope right here in the Tucson area, on top of Mount Lemmon. Most cool!


TESS releases its first batch of exoplanet candidates

The science team for the U.S.’s exoplanet space telescope TESS this week released its first batch of exoplanet candidates.

TESS scientists released the list so that other astronomers could make an initial determination as to whether these candidates are planets. There are 73 objects in this first batch, including some planets previously known from ground-based searches, says George Ricker, the mission’s principal investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Perhaps 5 to 20% of the objects on the list will turn out to be false alarms, he says. Others, if confirmed, will join the ranks of newly discovered exoplanets.

Researchers expect TESS to find as many as 10,000 large planets. But its main goal is to discover and measure the masses of at least 50 small worlds no more than four times the size of Earth.

Meanwhile, Kepler has resumed operations despite being almost out of fuel. The science team there is attempting to squeeze every last ounce of data it can before the spacecraft’s fuel runs out.


A gas giant exoplanet so hot it resembles a star

Link here. Key quote:

This sweltering exoplanet, located about 620 light-years away from Earth in the constellation Cygnus, is what astronomers call an “ultrahot Jupiter.” KELT-9b is a giant gas world like Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system. But it’s way bigger — it has three times the mass and twice the diameter of Jupiter — and it orbits extremely close to its hot parent star, KELT-9.

“Ultrahot Jupiter” is an unofficial term for a hot Jupiter exoplanet with temperatures exceeding 3,100 degrees Fahrenheit (1,700 degrees Celsius). They “are so hot that they have some resemblance to being stars even though they’re planets,” Kevin Heng, an astrophysicist at the University of Bern in Switzerland who participated in the study, told Space.com. KELT-9b can reach temperatures of up to 7,800 degrees F (4,300 degrees C).

This record-breaking heat enabled astronomers to detect iron and titanium in KELT-9b’s atmosphere. While researchers have long suspected that these elements are present on some exoplanets — iron is one of the most abundant elements in the universe — it’s difficult to detect them in cooler environments because the atoms are mostly “trapped in other molecules,” Heng said. However, KELT-9b is so hot that the clouds don’t condense in its atmosphere, allowing individual atoms of iron and other metals to fly solo.

Titanium has been found previously in the atmosphere’s of other exoplanets, but only as part of a molecule.


Tess captures comet, variable stars, asteroids, and Martian light

During its testing period prior to beginning science operations this month, the exoplanet space telescope TESS spotted in one series of images a comet, a host of variable stars, some asteroids, and even the faint hint of some reflected light from Mars.

Over the course of these tests, TESS took images of C/2018 N1, a comet discovered by NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite on June 29. The comet, located about 29 million miles (48 million kilometers) from Earth in the southern constellation Piscis Austrinus, is seen to move across the frame from right to left as it orbits the Sun. The comet’s tail, which consists of gases carried away from the comet by an outflow from the Sun called the solar wind, extends to the top of the frame and gradually pivots as the comet glides across the field of view.

In addition to the comet, the images reveal a treasure trove of other astronomical activity. The stars appear to shift between white and black as a result of image processing. The shift also highlights variable stars — which change brightness either as a result of pulsation, rapid rotation, or by eclipsing binary neighbors. Asteroids in our solar system appear as small white dots moving across the field of view. Towards the end of the video, one can see a faint broad arc of light moving across the middle section of the frame from left to right. This is stray light from Mars, which is located outside the frame. The images were taken when Mars was at its brightest near opposition, or its closest distance, to Earth.

The video that was compiled from these images is embedded below the fold.
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Kepler on verge of death

The Kepler space telescope is now almost out of fuel, and scientists have ceased science observations to devote the telescope’s last days downloading its last 51 days of data.

The telescope lasted far longer than planned, and discovered thousands of exoplanets. Its archives will be producing new discoveries for decades. And a new exoplanet space telescope, TESS, is already in orbit to take over.


More Earthlike exoplanets!

Astronomers using data from Kepler have discovered two stars, both with multiple orbiting Earth-sized planets. One has three planets all almost exactly the mass of Earth.

The first exoplanetary system is located in the star K2-239, characterized by these researchers as a red dwarf type M3V from observations made with the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma). It is located in the constellation of the Sextant at 50 parsecs from the Sun (at about 160 light years). It has a compact system of at least three rocky planets of similar size to the Earth (1.1, 1.0 and 1.1 Earth radii) that orbit the star every 5.2, 7.8 and 10.1 days, respectively.

The other red dwarf star called K2-240 has two super-Earth-like planets about twice the size of our planet. Although the atmospheric temperature of red dwarf stars, around which these planets revolve, is 3,450 and 3,800 K respectively, almost half the temperature of our Sun, these researchers estimate that all planets discovered will have temperatures superficial tens of degrees higher than those of the planet Earth due to the strong radiation they receive in these close orbits to their stars.

Knowing more about the surface environments of these very Earthlike exoplanets, as hostile as they might be to life, would teach us a great deal about our own planet and its birth and evolution.


Astronomers identify giant exoplanets that might harbor habitable moons

Worlds without end: In reviewing the known exoplanets astronomers have identified more than a hundred giant exoplanets located in the habitable zone that might harbor habitable moons.

The researchers identified 121 giant planets that have orbits within the habitable zones of their stars. At more than three times the radii of the Earth, these gaseous planets are less common than terrestrial planets, but each is expected to host several large moons.

Scientists have speculated that exomoons might provide a favorable environment for life, perhaps even better than Earth. That’s because they receive energy not only from their star, but also from radiation reflected from their planet. Until now, no exomoons have been confirmed.

Using this new database scientists will optimize future instruments on both the ground and in space to look for and study the moons circling these exoplanets.


TESS completes lunar flyby, takes first test image

The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) yesterday successfully completed its slingshot flyby of the Moon to place it in its final operational orbit.

The spacecraft also used one of its four cameras to successfully take a 2-second test exposure, proving that the camera and pointing system both work. The first science image is expected in June.

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