NASA finds planet outside solar system that may have water

NASA
K2-288Bb

The "Super Earth" is among three new planets and six supernovae outside our solar system that have been observed by Nasa's planet-hunting Tess mission in its first three months.

An artist's conception shows NASA's Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite, or TESS, with an assortment of exoplanets.

Dragomir and her team also used observations made by the Planet Finder Spectrograph, which is installed on the Magellan II Telescope in Chile, to confirm the discovery and help nail down HD 21749b's mass and orbital parameters.

If it's a water planet, HD 21749b is likely to be steamy: Based on its proximity to its parent star, the surface temperature could be in the neighborhood of 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

"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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research (MKI) in Cambridge.

"We think of TESS as an exoplanet-hunter, but in addition TESS is very effective at finding many other types of objects", said Dr. George Ricker, principal investigator with the TESS mission.

K2-288Bb is half the size of Neptune or 1.9 times the size of Earth, placing it in the "Fulton gap " between 1.5 and two times the size of Earth. But the gas that makes it up it is probably more dense than that of Uranus or Neptune.

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On the bright side, there is evidence of a second, still unconfirmed planet in the same system, this one with a much shorter 7.8-day orbit. It's hard to tell whether the planet is rocky like Earth or a gas giant like Neptune.

TESS was launched in April last year, kicking off a two-year mission to monitor for dips in the lights of some 200,000 stars.

"This is only the ninth system discovered containing six or more planets", he said. Every six days, the new planet orbits the star Pi Mensae, located about 60 light-years away and visible to the unaided eye in the southern constellation Mensa.

The discovery, discussed at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) and in pre-print at arXiv, is just one of several now coming thick and fast for TESS. "NASA's Kepler space telescope caught five of these events as they brightened during its first four years of operations". "TESS will cast a wider net than ever before for enigmatic worlds". "TESS found as many in its first month". Because TESS stares non-stop at one slice of the sky for 27 days, then moves to a neighbouring slice, it captures an unprecedented view of these exploding stars as they brighten and then dim. "We're only halfway through TESS's first year of operations, and the data floodgates are just beginning to open", he said. Its size is different from other exoplanets that revolve around a star outside our solar system.

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

These exoplanets will be studied so that NASA can determine the best targets for future missions, like the James Webb Space Telescope. Using ground-based telescopes, astronomers are now conducting follow-up observations on more than 280 TESS exoplanet candidates.

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