June 18, 2021

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Astronomers discover


Astronomers have spotted a planet just 90 light years from Earth with a surprising atmosphere – and the possibility of clouds containing water.

TOI-1231 b is a exoplanet, which means it is located outside of our solar system. It was discovered by a team of scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of New Mexico, who will publish their findings in an upcoming issue of The Astronomical Journal.

TOI-1231 b was detected using data from the Satellite for the study of exoplanets in transit (TESS) and confirmed using the Planet Finder Spectrograph (PFS) on the Magellan Clay Telescope in Chile. The PFS revealed details of the exoplanet’s mass and orbits by observing its gravitational influence on its host star.

In just 24 Earth days, TOI-1231b completes one orbit of its neighboring dwarf star M NLTT 24399, also known as the red dwarf, the most common type of star in the Milky Way.

NLTT 24399 is smaller, lighter, and darker than our sun, which actually detected the new exoplanet relatively easy.

“Imagine an Earth-like planet passing in front of a star the size of the sun, it will block out a tiny bit of light; but if it passes in front of a much smaller star, the proportion of light that is blocked will be greater” , the scientists said. “In a sense, this creates a larger shadow on the star’s surface, making the planets around the M-dwarfs more easily detectable and easier to study.”

toi1231b-hero.jpg
Artist’s impression of TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light years from Earth.

NASA / JPL-Caltech


The ideal candidate for observation

Astronomers have determined that TOI-1231 b is “oddly reminiscent of” Neptune, both in size and density, leading them to believe that it is also gaseous – and not rocky, like Earth. Its temperature, however, is more similar to that of our home planet.

“Even though TOI 1231 b is eight times closer to its star than Earth is to the sun, its temperature is similar to that of Earth, thanks to its colder and less bright host star,” said Diana Dragomir , co-author of the study. “However, the planet itself is actually larger than Earth and a bit smaller than Neptune – we could call it a sub-Neptune.”

With a temperature of around 140 degrees Fahrenheit, TOI-1231B is one of the coolest, smallest available exoplanets for future atmospheric studies never discovered.

“Compared to most of the transit planets detected so far, which often have scorching temperatures in the hundreds or thousands of degrees, TOI-1231 b is positively freezing, ”said lead author Jennifer Burt.

Previous research suggests that planets with such a low temperature could have clouds in their atmosphere. The recently discovered K2-18 showed evidence of water clouds – shocking scientists.

“TOI-1231b is one of the only other planets we know of in a similar size and temperature range, so future observations of this new planet will allow us to determine how common (or rare) it is for clouds of water form around these temperate worlds, ”said Burt.

And this is not the only peculiarity of the planetary system. It is moving away from Earth at such a high speed that researchers can easily detect hydrogen atoms escaping from its atmosphere – like a tail dragging behind the planet.

“The low density of TOI-1231 b indicates that it is surrounded by a substantial atmosphere rather than being a rocky planet. But the composition and extent of this atmosphere is unknown!” said Dragomir. “TOI-1231 b could have a large atmosphere of hydrogen or hydrogen-helium, or a denser water vapor atmosphere. Each of these would indicate a different origin, allowing astronomers to understand if and how them. planets form differently around M dwarfs compared to the planets around our Sun, for example.

A new era for the study of exoplanets

NASA researchers say these types of discoveries mark a new era in the study of exoplanets. They go from simply detecting these unusual planets to observing specific worlds and understanding their atmospheres.

Using a technique called transmission spectroscopy, scientists hope to capture starlight in the planet’s atmosphere. Molecules in the atmosphere absorb this light, leaving behind dark lines “that read like a barcode” and reveal its gaseous composition.

One of the most intriguing findings from the past two decades of exoplanet science is that, so far, none of the new planetary systems we’ve discovered resemble our own solar system in any way, ”said Burt. the size of Earth and Neptune in much shorter orbits than Mercury, so we don’t have any local examples to compare them with. “

Researchers plan to further study the planet later this month using the Hubble Space Telescope. They also hope to continue their observations and further research using the James Webb Space Telescope, slated for launch later this year.

“This new planet that we’ve discovered is still weird – but it’s one more step in looking a bit like our neighboring planets,” Burt said.

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