Potentially habitable ‘super-Earth’ discovered

Pat Wise
August 2, 2019

NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), a mission created to comb the heavens for exoplanets, has discovered its first potentially habitable world outside the solar system, according to a NASA release on Wednesday.

After some further solar sleuthing, the researchers came across a clutch of planets, the most promising of which, GJ 357 d, has conditions which indicate that it could sustain life. It is located approximately 31 light-years away in the constellation Hydra.

'GJ 357 d is located within the outer edge of its star's habitable zone, where it receives about the same amount of stellar energy from its star as Mars does from the Sun, ' said Diana Kossakowski, from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg.

In April, it found its first Earth-sized planet, which orbits a star 52 light years away, although temperatures of more than 400 degrees Celsius rule out any prospect of finding life on the planet. "We can expect many more discoveries of small Earth-like, rocky planets around nearby stars and multiple planetary systems as well", said Batcheldor. Astronomers confirming a planet candidate identified by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite subsequently found two additional worlds orbiting the star.

Within the system known as TOI-270 there is a rocky super-Earth that is slightly larger than our own planet, as well as two gaseous sub-Neptunes, roughly twice Earth's size.

Since the exoplanet orbits around its host star at about a fifth of the distance Earth revolves around the sun, it may have conditions similar to Earth, as per Cornell Chronicle yesterday. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth.

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The three planets orbit a star known as GJ 357, an M-type dwarf, which is around 40% cooler than our own sun and about a third of its mass and size.

However, if GJ 357 d does turn out to have an atmosphere, this could be a game changer, according to a report that will be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. It is not yet known if this planet transits its sun. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface.

As the old host star's activity is relatively quiet, the system is well suited for further analysis, with the researchers planning to focus other instruments - like the upcoming James Webb Space telescope - on TOI-270.

Follow up observations from the ground lead to the discovery of two more planets orbiting the dwarf sun, including the super-Earth. There's also GJ 357 c, which is at least 3.4 times bigger than Earth - show off.

TESS is a NASA Astrophysics Explorer mission led and operated by MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

Assuming no atmosphere, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of -64 degrees Fahrenheit and is believed to have a mass of 6.1 times that of Earth.

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