DAILYMAIL – Using data from NASA‘s Kepler space telescope, two NASA interns and a team of amateur astronomers have found a new ‘super Earth’.
Roughly twice the size of Earth, and known as K2-288Bb, the new world is located within its star’s habitable zone, raising hopes it could contain life.
It is 226 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, and could be rocky or could be a gas-rich planet similar to Neptune, NASA says.
K2-288Bb, the new world is located within its star’s habitable zone, raising hopes it could contain life. It is 226 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, and could be rocky or could be a gas-rich planet similar to Neptune, NASA says.
THE NEWEST EXOPLANET: WHAT WE KNOW
Located 226 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, the planet lies in a stellar system known as K2-288, which contains a pair of dim, cool M-type stars separated by about 5.1 billion miles (8.2 billion kilometers) – roughly six times the distance between Saturn and the Sun.
The brighter star is about half as massive and large as the Sun, while its companion is about one-third the Sun’s mass and size.
The new planet, K2-288Bb, orbits the smaller, dimmer star every 31.3 days.
Its size is rare among exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system.
‘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 Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago graduate student, who is also the lead author of a paper describing the new planet accepted for publication by The Astronomical Journal.
The planet lies in a stellar system known as K2-288, which contains a pair of dim, cool stars separated by about 5.1 billion miles (8.2 billion kilometers) – roughly six times the distance between Saturn and the Sun.
The brighter star is about half as massive and large as the Sun, while its companion is about one-third the Sun’s mass and size, NASA says.
The new planet, K2-288Bb, orbits the smaller, dimmer star every 31.3 days.
The discovery was made made when, 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.
They searched Kepler data for evidence of transits, the regular dimming of a star when an orbiting planet moves across the star’s face.
Examining data from the fourth observing campaign of Kepler’s K2 mission, the team noticed two likely planetary transits in the system.
But scientists require a third transit before claiming the discovery of a candidate planet, and there wasn’t a third signal in the observations they reviewed.
However, it later turned out the team wasn’t actually analyzing all of the data.
In Kepler’s K2 mode, which ran from 2014 to 2018, the spacecraft repositioned itself to point at a new patch of sky at the start of each three-month observing campaign.
WHAT IS THE GOLDILOCKS ZONE?
The habitable zone is the range of orbits around a star in which a planet can support liquid water.
This habitable zone is also known as the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, taken from the children’s fairy tale.
The temperature from the star needs to be ‘just right’ so that liquid water can exist on the surface.
The boundaries of the habitable zone are critical.
If a planet is too close to its star, it will experience a runaway greenhouse gas effect, like Venus.
But if it’s too far, any water will freeze, as is seen on Mars.
Astronomers were initially concerned that this repositioning would cause systematic errors in measurements, so ignored the first few days of observations.
On re-examining it, they found the data needed to confirm the exoplanet.
The re-processed data were posted directly to Exoplanet Explorers, a project where the public searches Kepler’s K2 observations to locate new transiting planets.
In May 2017, volunteers noticed the third transit and began an excited discussion about what was then thought to be an Earth-sized candidate in the system, which caught the attention of Feinstein and her colleagues.
‘That’s how we missed it – and it took the keen eyes of citizen scientists to make this extremely valuable find and point us to it,’ Feinstein said.
The team began follow-up observations using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the Keck II telescope at the W. M. Keck Observatory and NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (the latter two in Hawaii), and also examined data from ESA’s (the European Space Agency’s) Gaia mission.
WHAT IS THE KEPLER TELESCOPE?
The Kepler mission has spotted thousands of exoplanets since 2014, with 30 planets less than twice the size of Earth now known to orbit within the habitable zones of their stars.
Launched from Cape Canaveral on March 7th 2009, the Kepler telescope has helped in the search for planets outside of the solar system.
When it was launched it weighed 2,320 lbs (1,052 kg) and is 15.4 feet long by 8.9 feet wide (4.7 m × 2.7 m).
The satellite typically looks for ‘Earth-like’ planets, meaning they are rocky and orbit within the that orbit within the habitable or ‘Goldilocks’ zone of a star.
In total, Kepler has found around 5,000 unconfirmed ‘candidate’ exoplanets, with a further 2,500 ‘confirmed’ exoplanets that scientists have since shown to be real.
Kepler is currently on the ‘K2’ mission to discover more exoplanets.
K2 is the second mission for the spacecraft and was implemented by necessity over desire as two reaction wheels on the spacecraft failed.
These wheels control direction and altitude of the spacecraft and help point it in the right direction.
The modified mission looks at exoplanets around dim red dwarf stars.
While the planet has found thousands of exoplanets during its eight-year mission, five in particular have stuck out.
Kepler-452b, dubbed ‘Earth 2.0’, shares many characteristics with our planet despite sitting 1,400 light years away. It was found by Nasa’s Kepler telescope in 2014
1) ‘Earth 2.0’
In 2014 the telescope made one of its biggest discoveries when it spotted exoplanet Kepler-452b, dubbed ‘Earth 2.0’.
The object shares many characteristics with our planet despite sitting 1,400 light years away.
It has a similar size orbit to Earth, receives roughly the same amount of sun light and has same length of year.
Experts still aren’t sure whether the planet hosts life, but say if plants were transferred there, they would likely survive.
2) The first planet found to orbit two stars
Kepler found a planet that orbits two stars, known as a binary star system, in 2011.
The system, known as Kepler-16b, is roughly 200 light years from Earth.
Experts compared the system to the famous ‘double-sunset’ pictured on Luke Skywalker’s home planet Tatooine in ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’.
3) Finding the first habitable planet outside of the solar system
Scientists found Kepler-22b in 2011, the first habitable planet found by astronomers outside of the solar system.
The habitable super-Earth appears to be a large, rocky planet with a surface temperature of about 72°F (22°C), similar to a spring day on Earth.
4) Discovering a ‘super-Earth’
The telescope found its first ‘super-Earth’ in April 2017, a huge planet called LHS 1140b.
It orbits a red dwarf star around 40 million light years away, and scientists think it holds giant oceans of magma.
5) Finding the ‘Trappist-1’ star system
The Trappist-1 star system, which hosts a record seven Earth-like planets, was one of the biggest discoveries of 2017.
Each of the planets, which orbit a dwarf star just 39 million light years, likely holds water at its surface.
Three of the planets have such good conditions that scientists say life may have already evolved on them.
Kepler spotted the system in 2016, but scientists revealed the discovery in a series of papers released in February this year.
Kepler is a telescope that has an incredibly sensitive instrument known as a photometer that detects the slightest changes in light emitted from stars
How does Kepler discover planets?
The telescope has an incredibly sensitive instrument known as a photometer that detects the slightest changes in light emitted from stars.
It tracks 100,000 stars simultaneously, looking for telltale drops in light intensity that indicate an orbiting planet passing between the satellite and its distant target.
When a planet passes in front of a star as viewed from Earth, the event is called a ‘transit’.
Tiny dips in the brightness of a star during a transit can help scientists determine the orbit and size of the planet, as well as the size of the star.
Based on these calculations, scientists can determine whether the planet sits in the star’s ‘habitable zone’, and therefore whether it might host the conditions for alien life to grow.