NASA probe discovers new planet

NASA  Goddard

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".

What's even more exciting are hints the system holds a second candidate planet about the size of Earth that orbits the star every eight days.

The first confirmed discovery is a world called Pi Mensae c about twice Earth's size.

TESS will look for exoplanets using the transit method, observing slight dips in the brightness of stars as planets pass in front of them.

The planet orbits the star HD 21749 which lies in the faint constellation Reticulum.

The planet is in the K2-288 system, which contains a pair of dim, cool M-type stars that are 5.1 billion miles apart, about six times the distance between Saturn and the sun.

In 2017, Feinstein and Makennah Bristow, an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville, worked as interns with Joshua Schlieder, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

George Ricker, the mission's principal investigator at MIT, predicted that there will be many more discoveries to come as the team is "only halfway through Tess's first year of operations and the data floodgates are just beginning to open".

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It turned out that they did not analyze all of the data. Every three months, Kepler would stare at a differentpatch of sky. Astronomers were initially concerned that this repositioning would cause systematic errors in measurements. 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.

But the citizen scientists found the third transit hiding in those first few days of data that had been all but forgotten.

As scientists learned how to correct for these systematic errors, this trimming step was eliminated - but the early K2 data Barstow studied had been clipped. "Inspecting, or vetting, transits with the human eye is crucial because noise and other astrophysical events can mimic transits".

But the team needed three transits for the planet to be classified.

Feinstein and her colleagues couldn't believe they had missed it and the paper has now been accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal.

An illustration of NASA's Kepler space telescope. In comparison, Neptune is nearly four times as wide as Earth but only 17 times as massive. This places the planet within a recently discovered category called the Fulton gap, or radius gap.

"I'm very interested to know whether [it] has an Earth-like density to match its Earth-like radius - this will contribute to our understanding whether Earth-sized planets have diverse compositions or are all roughly similar to Earth", said Johanna Teske, a co-author of the report. This is likely the result of intense starlight breaking up atmospheric molecules and eroding away the atmospheres of some planets over time, leaving behind two populations. This is a rare size of exoplanet that makes it flawless for studying planetary evolution because so few have been found.

Even though the Kepler spacecraft ceased operations months ago, after almost a decade in service, its legacy continues: Today, researchers announced that they have found a planet roughly twice as big as Earth, located within what could be its parent star's habitable zone.

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