Published: Wed, January 09, 2019
Science | By Michele Flores

NASA Astronomers Discover Planet Twice The Size Of Earth

NASA Astronomers Discover Planet Twice The Size Of Earth

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".

It was identified by TESS, NASA's leading mission to identify exoplanets, alongside two other worlds.

A year ago at the American Astronomical Society meeting, it was announced that citizen scientists helped discover five planets between the size of Earth and Neptune around star K2-138, the first multiplanet system found through crowdsourcing. The first two candidates - known as Pi Mensae c and LHS 3844b - were reported in September, and they've now taken their place as the first two confirmed planets on TESS' list.

"It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found [and] its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon", Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student and lead author of the study, said in the statement.

"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 United States, who led the discovery. "But here we were lucky, and caught this one, and can now study it in more detail", Dragomir said.

HD 21749b also has the longest orbital period of any exoplanet found within 100 light years of us (36 days), is about three times Earth's size but 23 times its mass - and, perhaps surprisingly, it's considered nearly chilly, as exoplanets go.

Kepler has discovered more than 2,600 confirmed planets, out of which 50 are of the same size and temperature as the Earth.

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

The researchers also detected hints of another, smaller planet in the system, a planet that would have an orbital period of 7.8 days.

TESS - that is, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite - is in the midst of surveying almost the entire sky for exoplanets orbiting stars up to 300 light-years away from Earth. That is, it looks for tiny dips in starlight caused when planets cross their host stars' faces from the satellite's perspective.

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"This star was already known to host a planet, called Pi Mensae b, which is about 10 times the mass of Jupiter and follows a long and very eccentric orbit", said Chelsea Huang, a Juan Carlos Torres Fellow at the MIT Kavli Institute.

During this initial survey, TESS also witnessed six supernova explosions that it recorded before ground-based telescopes ever saw them. Its size is different from other exoplanets that revolve around a star outside our solar system.

The discovery of the planets was announced by scientists at the annual American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, the Guardian reported.

"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.

The Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel late October, as expected, ending its nine and a half year mission of hunting for planets outside our solar system. "TESS found as many in its first month".

Its four wide-field cameras will view the sky in 26 segments, each of which it will observe one by one.

These findings are from just the first few sectors TESS has observed in the Southern Hemispheres, beginning in July.

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

The data that yielded the finds was collected between 25 July and 22 August past year by the space telescope's four cameras.

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