Rare exoplanet discovered 226 light-years away from Earth

Weird'Sub-Neptune Exoplanet Discovered by NASA Space Telescope

Although NASA's Kepler space telescope ran out of fuel and ended its mission in 2018, citizen scientists have used its data to discover an exoplanet 226 light-years away in the Taurus constellation.

HD 21749b completes one orbit of its host star, which is almost as bright as our sun, every 36 Earth days.

TESS's other discoveries include a super-hot world, LHS 3844 b, that whirls around its star-a red dwarf only 15% the size of the Sun-every 11 hours.

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.

"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 U.S., who led the discovery. "But here, we were lucky and caught this one and can now study it in more detail".

Unusually, the planet is roughly 1.9 times the size of Earth - much larger than most other exoplanets that orbit close to their stars, which are normally not more than 1.5 times the size of Earth. If it's a rocky world like Earth, chances are good that it could support water on its surface, but it might also be a gassy "sub-Neptune" planet which would be hostile to life as we know it. But the gas that makes it up it is probably more dense than that of Uranus or Neptune. 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.

The boffins have also detected evidence of a second planet, though not yet confirmed, in the same planetary system, with a shorter, 7.8-day orbit, according to the IANS report.

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"It's a very exciting discovery due to how it was found, its temperate orbit and because planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon", said Feinstein, who presented the discovery at the 233rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle on Monday, Jan. 7.

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

NASA astrophysicist Geert Barents said the Sun affected the craft which hampered the first days of its mission - possibly dampening its ability to locate new planets. The exoplanet lies in the stellar system K2-288, which has two dim, cool stars. "We already have six in one month", Fausnaugh said. For what it's worth, several TESS finds have been the subject of pre-print research papers. It was unclear whether this signal was caused by a planet or variations in the host star's activity, so Dragomir and her colleagues analyzed observations taken by another instrument, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a spectrograph installed on a telescope at the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile.

"There was quite some detective work involved, and the right people were there at the right time", Dragomir says.

Once TESS has completed its two-year monitoring of the entire sky, the science team has committed to delivering information on 50 small planets less than four times the size of Earth to the astronomy community for further follow-up, either with ground-based telescopes or the future James Webb Space Telescope.

So the reprocessed, "cleaned-up" light curves were uploaded through the Exoplanet Explorers project on online platform Zooniverse, and the public was invited to "go forth and find us planets", Feinstein said.

"This is only the ninth system discovered containing six or more planets", he said.

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