An Exoplanet Twice the Size of Earth Has Been Discovered 145 Light Years Away

Friday, 07 September 2018 - 10:59AM
NASA
Astronomy
Friday, 07 September 2018 - 10:59AM
An Exoplanet Twice the Size of Earth Has Been Discovered 145 Light Years Away
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Image Credit: Outer Places, adapted from photo by NASA
Using data from NASA's Kepler Space telescope, a grad school student and an international team of researchers have discovered an exoplanet that is twice the size of our own and that is ten times closer to its host star than Mercury is to sun. Named Wolf503b, not a lot is known about the planet yet, but there is enough to get astronomers excited and ready to give it their undivided attention.

"The discovery and confirmation of this new exoplanet was very rapid, thanks to the collaboration that my advisor, Björn Benneke, and I are a part of," said Merrin Peterson, study author and master's degree student at the Université de Montréal's Institute for Research on Exoplanets. "In May, I just started my graduate studies when the latest release of Kepler K2 data came in. We were able to quickly analyze the new data quickly and found many interesting candidate exoplanets. Wolf 503b was one of them." The planet was detected using the tried-and-true method of observing the dips in light as it passed between Kepler and its host star. Once the host star was identified as an orange dwarf based on its spectrum (using the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility), Wolf503b was confirmed using high-res imagery.

Thousands of exoplanets have been confirmed so far. Now that NASA's TESS is on the job there are likely to be thousands more found in the near future, but Wolf503b's size and proximity to Earth make it more appealing than many others on NASA's growing list. "Wolf 503b is one of the only planets with a radius near the gap that has a star that is bright enough to be amenable to more detailed study that will better constrain its true nature," said Université de Montréal professor Björn Benneke. "It provides a key opportunity to better understand the origin of this radius gap as well as the nature of the intriguing populations of 'super-Earths' and 'sub-Neptunes' as a whole." 

Some educated guesses can be made about Wolf503b's mass, composition, and the chemical makeup of its atmosphere based on what scientists know already, but it's the next steps in the research that Peterson and the team are most excited about because they will have the data to support or disprove their hypotheses. "By investigating the nature of Wolf 503b, we'll understand more about the structure of planets near the radius gap and more generally about the diversity of exoplanets present in our galaxy," said Peterson. "I look forward to learning more about it."




Cover image Credit: Outer Places, adapted from photo by NASA
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