Tag Archives: exoplanets

Two super-Earths found orbiting nearby red dwarf star

Worlds without end: Astronomers have detected evidence of two super-Earths orbiting Gliese 887, only 11 light years away and the brightest red dwarf star in the night sky.

They used a technique known as “Doppler wobble”, which enables them to measure the tiny back and forth wobbles of the star caused by the gravitational pull of the planets. The regular signals correspond to orbits of just 9.3 and 21.8 days, indicating two super-Earths – Gliese 887b and Gliese 887c – both larger than the Earth yet moving rapidly, much faster even than Mercury. Scientists estimate the temperature of Gliese 887c to be around 70oC.

Because Gliese 887 is a very constant star, not very active, and with relatively few strong flares, they think these planets have a chance of retaining their atmospheres.

Be aware that these are like most exoplanets only candidate exoplanets. Until their existence is confirmed by other researchers, it is possible the detection is a false one.

A host of new solar systems

A gallery of baby solar systems

Worlds without end: Astronomers this month released a large collection of images taken during the past four years by the Gemini South Telescope in Chile of young stars that also have debris disks and are likely solar systems in the process of forming.

The image to the right, reduced slightly to post here, is only a sampling of the 26 disk systems found out of 104 young stars photographed. Go to the link to see some higher resolution examples.

Of the 26 images of debris disks obtained by the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), 25 had “holes” around the central star that likely were created by planets sweeping up rocks and dust. Seven of the 26 were previously unknown; earlier images of the other 19 were not as sharp as those from GPI and often didn’t have the resolution to detect an inner hole. The survey doubles the number of debris disks imaged at such high resolution.

“One of the things we found is that these so-called disks are really rings with inner clearings,” said Esposito, who is also a researcher at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California. “GPI had a clear view of the inner regions close to the star, whereas in the past, observations by the Hubble Space Telescope and older instruments from the ground couldn’t see close enough to the star to see the hole around it.”

The data strongly confirms most theories about planet formation in these debris disks, as one of the youngest stars did not have any gaps in its disk, suggesting no larger bodies had yet formed to clear out a region.

Astronomers claim discovery of six exomoons

The uncertainty of science: Astronomers are now claiming they have detected evidence of the existence of six exomoons orbiting different stars with transiting exoplanets.

“These exomoon candidates are so small that they can’t be seen from their own transits. Rather, their presence is given away by their gravitational influence on their parent planet,” Wiegert said.

If an exoplanet orbits its star undisturbed, the transits it produces occur precisely at fixed intervals.

But for some exoplanets, the timing of the transits is variable, sometimes occurring several minutes early or late. Such transit timing variations – known as TTVs – indicate the gravity of another body. That could mean an exomoon or another planet in the system is? affecting the transiting planet.

What they have basically done is applied the technique used to identify exoplanet candidates when the planet does NOT transit the star (the wobble caused by gravity and indicated by spectral changes), and looked to see if they can see the same variations in these exoplanets.

This is fun stuff, but it is so uncertain as to be almost laughable. If you read the press release closely, you will discover that their work has been submitted for publication, but has not yet been even peer reviewed.

Their concept is good, but I would not pay much attention to these “results.”

Exoplanet in Earth-like orbit circling Sun-type star

Worlds without end: Astronomers have found evidence suggesting the existence of an exoplanet about twice as massive as the Earth and orbiting a solar-twin star in an orbit almost the same as the Earth’s.

The star, Kepler-160, is about 3,000 light years away, and had previously discovered to have two exoplanets.

“Our analysis suggests that Kepler-160 is orbited not by two but by a total of four planets,” Heller summarizes the new study. One of the two planets that Heller and his colleagues found is Kepler-160d, the previously suspected planet responsible for the distorted orbit of Kepler-160c. Kepler-160d does not show any transits in the light curve of the star and so it has been confirmed indirectly. The other planet, formally a planet candidate, is KOI-456.04, probably a transiting planet with a radius of 1.9 Earth radii and an orbital period of 378 days. Given its Sun-like host star, the very Earth-like orbital period results in a very Earth-like insolation from the star – both in terms of the amount of the light received and in terms of the light color. Light from Kepler-160 is visible light very much like sunlight. All things considered, KOI-456.04 sits in a region of the stellar habitable zone – the distance range around a star admitting liquid surface water on an Earth-like planet – that is comparable to the Earth’s position around the Sun.

“KOI-456.01 is relatively large compared to many other planets that are considered potentially habitable. But it’s the combination of this less-than-double the size of the Earth planet and its solar type host star that make it so special and familiar,” Heller clarifies. As a consequence, the surface conditions on KOI-456.04 could be similar to those known on Earth, provided its atmosphere is not too massive and non-Earth-like. The amount of light received from its host star is about 93 percent of the sunlight received on Earth. If KOI-456.04 has a mostly inert atmosphere with a mild Earth-like greenhouse effect, then its surface temperature would be +5 degrees Celsius on average, which is about ten degrees lower than the Earth’s mean global temperature.

These results have many uncertainties, so we should not be surprised if further research produces significant revisions in these conclusions. Nonetheless, the number of Earth-like planets orbiting Sun-like stars in orbits like the Earth’s continues to rise.

Second exoplanet confirmed orbiting Proxima Centauri

Worlds without end: Using archived Hubble data, astronomers have now independently confirmed the existence of a second exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

Dubbed Proxima c, this is not the same Earth-sized exoplanet confirmed to orbit the star last week. That planet, Proxima b, orbits close to the star every 11.2 days. The new planet is much farther out.

Benedict found a planet with an orbital period of about 1,907 days buried in the 25-year-old Hubble data. This was an independent confirmation of the existence of Proxima Centauri c.

Shortly afterward, a team led by Raffaele Gratton of INAF published images of the planet at several points along its orbit that they had made with the SPHERE instrument on the Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Benedict then combined the findings of all three studies: his own Hubble astrometry, Damasso’s radial velocity studies, and Gratton’s images to greatly refine the mass of Proxima Centauri c. He found that the planet is about 7 times as massive as Earth.

Though I am unaware of any hints of additional planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, the presence of two strongly implies the likelihood of more.

New observations confirm Earth-like planet orbiting nearest star

Worlds without end: New observations have confirmed the existence of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, only 4.2 light years away..

The planet, Proxima b, is estimated to have a mass 1.17 of Earth’s, and orbit the star every 11.2 days. Based on that orbit, the planet is also in the star’s habitable zone. Whether there is life there however remains unknown.

Although Proxima b is about 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it receives comparable energy, so that its surface temperature could mean that water (if there is any) is in liquid form in places and might, therefore, harbour life.

Having said that, although Proxima b is an ideal candidate for biomarker research, there is still a long way to go before we can suggest that life has been able to develop on its surface. In fact, the Proxima star is an active red dwarf that bombards its planet with X rays, receiving about 400 times more than the Earth. “Is there an atmosphere that protects the planet from these deadly rays?” asks Christophe Lovis, a researcher in UNIGE’s Astronomy Department and responsible for ESPRESSO’s scientific performance and data processing. “And if this atmosphere exists, does it contain the chemical elements that promote the development of life (oxygen, for example)? How long have these favourable conditions existed? We’re going to tackle all these questions.

The research data also suggests there might be another planet in orbit around Proxima Centauri, though this conclusion is very preliminary.

First exoplanet imaged was nothing more than a debris cloud

The uncertainty of science: What had originally been thought to be the first image ever taken of an exoplanet has now turned out to be only the fading and expanding cloud of debris, left over from a collusion.

The object, called Fomalhaut b, was first announced in 2008, based on data taken in 2004 and 2006. It was clearly visible in several years of Hubble observations that revealed it was a moving dot. Until then, evidence for exoplanets had mostly been inferred through indirect detection methods, such as subtle back-and-forth stellar wobbles, and shadows from planets passing in front of their stars.

Unlike other directly imaged exoplanets, however, nagging puzzles arose with Fomalhaut b early on. The object was unusually bright in visible light, but did not have any detectable infrared heat signature. Astronomers conjectured that the added brightness came from a huge shell or ring of dust encircling the planet that may possibly have been collision-related. The orbit of Fomalhaut b also appeared unusual, possibly very eccentric. “Our study, which analyzed all available archival Hubble data on Fomalhaut revealed several characteristics that together paint a picture that the planet-sized object may never have existed in the first place,” said Gáspár.

The team emphasizes that the final nail in the coffin came when their data analysis of Hubble images taken in 2014 showed the object had vanished, to their disbelief. Adding to the mystery, earlier images showed the object to continuously fade over time, they say. “Clearly, Fomalhaut b was doing things a bona fide planet should not be doing,” said Gáspár.

The interpretation is that Fomalhaut b is slowly expanding from the smashup that blasted a dissipating dust cloud into space. Taking into account all available data, Gáspár and Rieke think the collision occurred not too long prior to the first observations taken in 2004. By now the debris cloud, consisting of dust particles around 1 micron (1/50th the diameter of a human hair), is below Hubble’s detection limit. The dust cloud is estimated to have expanded by now to a size larger than the orbit of Earth around our Sun.

This is not the first exoplanet that astronauts thought they had imaged, only to find out later that it was no such thing.

Remember this when next you hear or read some scientist telling you they are certain about their results, or that the science is “settled.” Unless you can get close enough to get a real picture in high resolution, or have tons of data from many different sources over a considerable period of time, and conclusions must always be subject to skepticism

Earth-sized exoplanet in habitable zone found in old Kepler data

A review of the data produced by the space telescope Kepler, now retired, has discovered an exoplanet about the same size as Earth and also located in the habitable zone that had been missed previously by software.

Scientists discovered this planet, called Kepler-1649c, when looking through old observations from Kepler, which the agency retired in 2018. While previous searches with a computer algorithm misidentified it, researchers reviewing Kepler data took a second look at the signature and recognized it as a planet. Out of all the exoplanets found by Kepler, this distant world – located 300 light-years from Earth – is most similar to Earth in size and estimated temperature.

This newly revealed world is only 1.06 times larger than our own planet. Also, the amount of starlight it receives from its host star is 75% of the amount of light Earth receives from our Sun – meaning the exoplanet’s temperature may be similar to our planet’s as well. But unlike Earth, it orbits a red dwarf. Though none have been observed in this system, this type of star is known for stellar flare-ups that may make a planet’s environment challenging for any potential life.

A number of Earth-like planets have been found around red dwarf stars. Whether life could evolve in such places is entirely unknown. Red dwarfs are small, and would have likely formed in a nebula cloud with a dearth of many elements and materials needed for life. Moreover, because they are also so dim, the habitable zone is very near the star, meaning that, as the article mentions, strong flares are more dangerous.

At the same time, red dwarfs are the most common star, and the most long-lived, capable of burning for tens of billions of years. With enough time and numbers anything is still possible.

An exoplanet where it rains iron

Astronomers have discovered an exoplanet 640 light years away hot enough for iron to be vapor in the atmosphere and to condense out as rain.

The high-resolution spectrum reveals lots of iron vapor within the sliver of atmosphere undergoing the transition from day to night. However, this iron vapor signature is missing from the sliver of atmosphere transitioning from night to day. The astronomers think this happens because strong winds push iron vapor to the nightside, where it cools and condenses into clouds.

“This planet has a twilight zone at a temperature close to the iron condensation temperature,” Ehrenreich explains, “so the change in atmospheric composition (with iron vs. without iron) is occurring right where we are able to observe.”

Because the planet is a gas giant, there’s no surface onto which the droplets can fall, says coauthor Nuno Santos (University of Porto, Portugal). But the planet’s gravity likely pulls the clouds downward, enveloping the nightside in iron fog. The global winds then push the clouds and fog onto the dayside, where the vaporization-condensation cycle repeats again.

Very exotic, and alien, and I guarantee it is probably far more alien than we so far can guess.

You can find out more in this second more detailed article.

Review of Kepler data uncovers seventeen more possible exoplanets

Worlds without end: In reviewing the entire Kepler database of 200,000 stars, scientists have found seventeen more candidate exoplanets, including one only 1.5 times the mass of the Earth that is also in the habitable zone.

From the paper’s abstract:

We present the results of an independent search of all ~200,000 stars observed over the four year Kepler mission (Q1–Q17) for multiplanet systems, using a three-transit minimum detection criterion to search orbital periods up to hundreds of days. We incorporate both automated and manual triage, and provide estimates of the completeness and reliability of our vetting pipeline. Our search returned 17 planet candidates (PCs) in addition to thousands of known Kepler Objects of Interest (KOIs), with a 98.8% recovery rate of already confirmed planets. We highlight the discovery of one candidate, KIC-7340288 b, that is both rocky (radius $\leqslant 1.6{R}_{\oplus }$) and in the Habitable Zone (insolation between 0.25 and 2.2 times the Earth’s insolation). Another candidate is an addition to the already known KOI-4509 system.

I must emphasize that these are candidate exoplanets, meaning their existence has not been confirmed by other observations, and could very well turn out to be false positives.

Still, that this independent review matched the previous list of Kepler candidates within 98.8% means that the list of exoplanet candidates from Kepler is solid and worth further study. With thousands of candidates, however, that further study is likely going to take a very long time. And the backlog will be growing significantly with the many thousands of additional exoplanet candidates expected to be found by TESS.

Successful first light for CHEOPS space telescope

The science team for Europe’s exoplanet-hunting CHEOPS space telescope announced today that the telescope has successfully obtained its first pictures, and that all appears to be working correctly.

Preliminary analysis has shown that the images from CHEOPS are even better than expected. However, better for CHEOPS does not mean sharper as the telescope has been deliberately defocused. This is because spreading the light over many pixels ensures that the spacecraft’s jitter and the pixel-to-pixel variations are smoothed out, allowing for better photometric precision. “The good news is that the actual blurred images received are smoother and more symmetrical than what we expected from measurements performed in the laboratory,” says Benz. High precision is necessary for CHEOPS to observe small changes in the brightness of stars outside our solar system caused by the transit of an exoplanet in front of the star. Since these changes in brightness are proportional to the surface of the transit planet, CHEOPS will be able to measure the size of the planets. “These initial promising analyses are a great relief and also a boost for the team,” continues Benz.

I suspect the planned fuzziness of their images is why the press release did not include them.

A second exoplanet orbiting Proxima Centauri?

Worlds without end: Astronomers think they have found evidence of a second exoplanet orbiting the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

The planet, a super-Earth called Proxima Centauri c (Proxima c for short), has at least six times more mass than Earth and orbits its star every 5.2 years.

…“Stars like Proxima Centauri are rather restless and continuously present eruptions and spots on their surface, which make the detection of a planetary-induced oscillation very complicated,” says coauthor Fabio Del Sordo (University of Crete and Foundation for Research and Technology-Hellas in Heraklion, Greece). Because the observations span almost two decades, the scientists have confidently ruled out those sources of noise, but they caution that follow-up observations are needed to confirm that the signal comes from a planet.

There is a lot of uncertainty here, requiring an independent confirmation of this result. It would not be surprising if this exoplanet vanished when others took a look, finding it a creation not of a periodic gravitation wobble but of the random fluctuations of the star itself.

If it does exist, it will not likely be a place where life exists. Too far from this very dim red dwarf star to get enough energy. However, as a super-Earth it might someday in the far future be a great mining world.

More superEarth exoplanets found circling nearby stars

Worlds without end: Among a new bunch of thirteen exoplanets, astronomers have discovered two more superEarth-sized exoplanets circling nearby red dwarf stars.

The two potentially habitable planets are orbiting GJ180 and GJ229A, which are among the nearest stars to our own Sun, making them prime targets for observations by next-generation space- and land-based telescopes. They are both super-Earths with at least 7.5 and 7.9 times our planet’s mass and orbital periods of 106 and 122 days respectively.

The Neptune-mass planet—found orbiting GJ433 at a distance at which surface water is likely to be frozen—is probably the first of its kind that is a realistic candidate for future direct imaging. “GJ 433 d is the nearest, widest, and coldest Neptune-like planet ever detected,” Feng added.

For a lot of reasons it is likely that life as we know it probably does not exist on these planets. Nonetheless, their close proximity makes it possible to study them, and since we have no such planets in our own solar system they can teach us a lot about planetary formation and evolution.

TESS finds its first Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has discovered its first Earth-sized planet, orbiting a M dwarf star within the habitable zone.

TOI 700 is a small, cool M dwarf star located just over 100 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. It’s roughly 40% of the Sun’s mass and size and about half its surface temperature. The star appears in 11 of the 13 sectors TESS observed during the mission’s first year, and scientists caught multiple transits by its three planets.

The star was originally misclassified in the TESS database as being more similar to our Sun, which meant the planets appeared larger and hotter than they really are. Several researchers, including Alton Spencer, a high school student working with members of the TESS team, identified the error.

“When we corrected the star’s parameters, the sizes of its planets dropped, and we realized the outermost one was about the size of Earth and in the habitable zone,” said Emily Gilbert, a graduate student at the University of Chicago. “Additionally, in 11 months of data we saw no flares from the star, which improves the chances TOI 700 d is habitable and makes it easier to model its atmospheric and surface conditions.”

We could also give this story the subhead “the uncertainty of science.” Note how a revision of the star’s mass changed the planet’s. Though I am sure they have improved their estimate of the star, this error illustrates how easy it is to get a final astronomical conclusion wrong. There are always a lot of assumptions long the way, any one of which could have a margin of error significant enough to change the final result.

In other TESS news, the space telescope has also found an exoplanet orbiting a stellar binary system of two stars.

TESS completes 1st survey of southern sky

The TESS science team today released its first full panorama of the southern sky, revealing everything the space telescope has imaged since launch in one image.

The glow of the Milky Way — our galaxy seen edgewise — arcs across a sea of stars in a new mosaic of the southern sky produced from a year of observations by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). Constructed from 208 TESS images taken during the mission’s first year of science operations, completed on July 18, the southern panorama reveals both the beauty of the cosmic landscape and the reach of TESS’s cameras. “Analysis of TESS data focuses on individual stars and planets one at a time, but I wanted to step back and highlight everything at once, really emphasizing the spectacular view TESS gives us of the entire sky,” said Ethan Kruse, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow who assembled the mosaic at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Within this scene, TESS has discovered 29 exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, and more than 1,000 candidate planets astronomers are now investigating.

A reduced version of this image wouldn’t show anyone its beauty or significance. I have embedded below the fold the short video at the link which shows it quite nicely. The video also summarized the mission quite well.
» Read more

A big planet circling a small star

The uncertainty of science: In contradiction of every existing stellar and planetary formation model, astronomers have found a half-sized Jupiter exoplanet orbiting a tiny red dwarf star.

The red dwarf GJ 3512 is located 30 light-years from us. Although the star is only about a tenth of the mass of the Sun, it possesses a giant planet – an unexpected observation. “Around such stars there should only be planets the size of the Earth or somewhat more massive Super-Earths,” says Christoph Mordasini, professor at the University of Bern and member of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS: “GJ 3512b, however, is a giant planet with a mass about half as big as the one of Jupiter, and thus at least one order of magnitude more massive than the planets predicted by theoretical models for such small stars.”

It appears the universe does not care what this and other scientists think “should” happen. The universe will do what the universe wants to do.

This discovery only underlines how little we understand of the formation of stars and their solar system. Be prepared for many more like surprises in the coming decades and centuries.

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.

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