NASA’s TESS finds a bustling cosmic neighborhood with two super-Earths

Here’s your kind reminder that our solar system is just a water molecule in the ocean of the universe.

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Satellite Survey, better known as TESS, has discovered a buzzing galactic neighborhood just 33 light-years from our planet. It has a central star, a few planets orbiting that star, and according to the scientists behind this alternate-reality discovery, there are at least two Earth-sized terrestrial worlds in the package.

If you could travel at a tenth the speed of light it would cost you something like 330 years to go to this solar system-like place in the galaxy. But that is of course not possible for various reasons.

But by using special earth equipment, like telescopes and space spectrometers — maybe even the James Webb space telescope once it’s up and running — we can paint a pretty clear picture of what this neighborhood looks like.

With that in mind, the researchers will present in-depth details about this multiplanet system Wednesday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Pasadena, California, so that the astronomy world can shortlist these new exoplanets for important exoplanet studies.

And they’ve already given a preview of their findings, in a press release from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What we know so far is that the star of the system is called HD 260655 and is relatively small, cool and categorized as an M dwarf. M-dwarfs are considerably less massive than our sun, a G-type main sequence starbut are 10 times as numerous throughout the universe

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This test image from one of four cameras aboard the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) captures a swath of the southern sky along our galaxy’s plane.

NASA/MIT/TESS

The inner planet orbits its star every 2.8 Earth days and is about 1.2 times the size of Earth and twice as massive. The other strange world revolves around 5.7 Earth days and is 1.5 times the size of Earth and three times as massive. They are both considered ‘rocky’.

Say hello to your closest exoplanet neighbors

“Both planets in this system are each considered some of the best targets for atmospheric study because of their star’s brightness,” said Michelle Kunimoto of MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and one of the lead scientists behind the discovery in a statement.

That includes studies that answer questions like, “Is there a volatile-rich atmosphere around these planets? And are there any signs of water- or carbon-based species?” Kunimoto said — in other words, a protective layer like the Earth’s ozone layer, and living things like … humans. “These planets are fantastic test beds for those explorations.”

OK, but before you get too excited, the team emphasized that the newly revealed rocky worlds of interest probably aren’t habitable — they tread really (really) close to their host star, so they’re probably too hot to host water. The innermost planet, according to the study, roasts at an estimated 818 degrees Fahrenheit, and the other has a balmy temperature of 548 degrees Fahrenheit.

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This illustration shows what some exoplanets might look like — not necessarily the two discussed in this new study.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We consider that range outside the habitable zone,” Kunimoto said.

Still, these worlds could prove invaluable to the overall search for habitable exoplanets. In short, they could inform how scientists behave future studies who can encounter planets that… to be in a habitable zone.

How to find an exoplanet

NASA’s TESS steadily discovers exoplanets in the universe since launch in 2018, after I already have a unbelievable number of such alien worlds

It essentially works by detecting periodic dips in the luminescence of stars around the universe, because such variations in light can indicate a planet is passing in front of those stars. Imagine looking at a lamp and then seeing a person walk past the lamp to block your view. If you were really far from the lamp, you might not be able to see exactly who was blocking your view, but you might be able to deduce that someone did, because the light definitely fell for a moment.

It’s kind of like that.

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An illustration of TESS.

NASA

So in October 2021, Kunimoto found one of these dips while monitoring the satellite’s incoming data. They came from the star HD 260655. After numerous other tests, including a well-known gravitational wobble test, which looks at whether the light dips are accompanied by some sort of gravitational pull on the star itself, the researchers concluded that, yes, there are two planets in it. orbiting the star nearby.

“We knew we had something really exciting,” MIT’s Avi Shporer, a member of the discovery team, said in a statement.

“But there could be more planets in the system,” Shporer added. “There are many multiplanet systems with five or six planets, especially around small stars like this one. Hopefully we’ll find more.” And if the team finds more, “maybe there’s one in the habitable zone.

“That’s optimistic thinking.”

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