NASA said its new Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite space telescope has discovered its smallest exoplanet so far, a strange world that is about 80 percent the size of the earth and could help "unlock" the secrets of how the blue planet became habitable.
Known as L 98-59b, the new exoplanet in the star system L 98-59 is 35 light years away from our solar system. Two other worlds were also discovered around the L 98-59 star by Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or TESS for short, almost doubling the number of small exoplanets discovered so far.
"The discovery is a great technical and scientific accomplishment for TESS," said Veselin Kostov, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the study's lead author, in a statement. "For atmospheric studies of small planets, you need short circuits around bright stars, but such planets are difficult to detect. This system has the potential for fascinating future studies."
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The discovery of L 98-59b and the other two planets was published in The Astronomical Journal.
The other two exoplanets, known as L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are approx. 1.4 and 1.6 times the size of the earth. All three were discovered when TESS mocked their shadows past the star, causing "periodic dips in the star's brightness."
The smallest exoplanet ever discovered is Kepler-37b, which is approx. one fifth of the lunar size.
L 98-59b orbits the star every 2.25 days and receives almost 22 times the amount of energy the earth does from its Sun. L 98-59c circles every 3.7 days, and L 98-59d passes its star once every 7.5 days.
Unfortunately, none of these exoplanets are within the star's "habitable zone" that eliminates the possibility of liquid water on them. However, not all hope is lost when it comes to the possibility of supporting life.
All three exoplanets occupy the so-called Venus zone, which NASA describes as distance "where a planet with a first earth-like atmosphere could experience a running greenhouse effect that transforms it into a Venus-like atmosphere." It is possible L 98-59d can similar to Venus, which is very rocky, or Neptune, which has a "small rock core cocooned under a deep atmosphere."
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Joshua Schlieder, a co-author of the study and an astrophysicist at NASA Goddard, said that not all planets that orbit the stars are identical and highlights the differences between Earth and Venus.
"We still have many questions as to why the Earth became habitable and Venus not," says Schlieder. If we can find and study similar examples of other stars like L 98-59, we can potentially unlock some of these secrets. "
TESS, which cost $ 200 million and was launched in April 2018 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9-rocket, replaced the Kepler telescope, which began to work in the latter half of last year and eventually retired in October 2018.
In total, Kepler was responsible for the discovery of more than 2, 600 exoplanets, including 18 terrestrial exoplanets
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