Spotting new exoplanets with NASA’s Kepler space telescope is nothing new. Google even managed to automate the process with machine learning. Just add them to the pile with the 3,700 other exoplanets, right? Sometimes researchers still spot a planet of particular interest in the data that deserves additional study. Such is the case with one of 15 planets just uncovered by Japanese astronomers. It’s Earth-like and potentially habitable.
Kepler has been in operation for nearly a decade, scanning large numbers of stars in order to spot small dips in brightness. That dip could signify a planet is orbiting the star and passed in front of it from Kepler’s perspective. However, someone needs to go through the data to determine if the signal really does give away the presence of a planet.
Researchers from the Tokyo Institute of Technology spotted the latest exoplanets hiding in the data when examining readings collected by Kepler in the K2 phase. K2 started several years ago when reaction wheel problems limited the effectiveness of the satellite’s camera. Even in this limited mode, Kepler has found hundreds of new exoplanets to add to the total of more than 2,500 discovered since it started operating. Three of the 15 newly discovered planets fall into the Super-Earth category, meaning they’re rocky and between 1.5 and two times larger than Earth.
Of the three Super-Earths, one known as K2-155d is a tantalizing target for future study. It orbits a red dwarf star about 200 light years away, which is called K2-155. Red dwarfs are very long-lived stars, so life would have plenty of time to develop. They’re smaller and cooler than the sun, but an exoplanet orbiting close enough could still be warm enough to have liquid water on its surface. The flip side is that radiation would be more intense at that distance.
K2-155d is about 1.6 times the size of Earth, but we can’t say anything for sure about its density. Therefore, it may have more gravity than Earth or it could be very similar because of a lower density. Based on simulations of the exoplanet, the team believes it could have an atmosphere similar to Earth’s. Additional observations will help nail down the exoplanet’s properties and determine if it would be habitable by our standards.
NASA is set to launch the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) next month. This spacecraft will look at the brightest stars near Earth over a two-year period to gather data about exoplanets. As the brightest red dwarf visible from Earth, K2-155 could be on the list.
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