In August of 2016, astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced the discovery of an exoplanet in the neighboring system of Proxima Centauri. The news was greeted with consider excitement, as this was the closest rocky planet to our Solar System that also orbited within its star’s habitable zone. Since then, multiple studies have been conducted to determine if this planet could actually support life.
Looking to the future, NASA and other space agencies have high hopes for the field of extra-solar planet research. In the past decade, the number of known exoplanets has reached just shy of 4000, and many more are expected to be found once next-generations telescopes are put into service. And with so many exoplanets to study, research goals have slowly shifted away from the process of discovery and towards characterization.
Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are cooking up an alien atmosphere right here on Earth. In a new study, JPL scientists used a high-temperature "oven" to heat a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,100 Celsius), about the temperature of molten lava. The aim was to simulate conditions that might be found in the atmospheres of a special class of exoplanets (planets outside our solar system) called "hot Jupiters."
In the past thirty years, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of our technology, the vast majority of these exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means, often by detecting the transits of planets in front of their stars (the Transit Method) or by the gravitational influence they exert on their star (the Radial Velocity Method)
In Star Wars VI we first meet the Ewoks living on the Forest Moon of Endor. The planet Endor itself is a gas giant, but the Forest Moon is a habitable world, peopled by small furry sentient creatures. While we may not be living in the Star Wars universe, astronomers have now found the first evidence for a moon orbiting a gas giant planet in a star system other than our own.
The study of exoplanets -- planets that lie outside our solar system -- could help scientists answer big questions about our place in the universe, and whether life exists beyond Earth. But, these distant worlds are extremely faint and difficult to image directly. A new study uses Earth as a stand-in for an exoplanet, and shows that even with very little light -- as little as one pixel -- it is still possible to measure key characteristics of distant worlds.
The discovery of extra-solar planets has certainly heated up in the past few years. With the deployment of the Kepler mission in 2009, several thousands of exoplanet candidates have been discovered and over 2,500 have been confirmed. In many cases, these planets have been gas giants orbiting close to their respective stars (aka. “Hot Jupiters”), which has confounded some commonly-held notions of how and where planets form.
It is good time to be an exoplanet hunter… or just an exoplanet enthusiast for that matter! Every few weeks, it seems, new discoveries are being announced which present more exciting opportunities for scientific research. But even more exciting is the fact that every new find increases the likelihood of locating a potentially habitable planet (and hence, life) outside of our Solar System.
Searching for planets around other stars is a tricky business. They’re so small and faint that it’s hard to spot them. But a possible planet in a nearby stellar system may be betraying its presence in a unique way: by a shadow that is sweeping across the face of a vast pancake-shaped gas-and-dust disk surrounding a young star.
A team of astronomers have used the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope to image the first planet ever found in a wide orbit inside a triple-star system. The orbit of such a planet had been expected to be unstable, probably resulting in the planet being quickly ejected from the system. But somehow this one survives. This unexpected observation suggests that such systems may actually be more common than previously thought. The results will be published online in the journal Science on 7 July 2016.
For the first time astronomers were able to analyse the atmosphere of an exoplanet in the class known as super-Earths. Using data gathered with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and new analysis techniques, the exoplanet 55 Cancri e is revealed to have a dry atmosphere without any indications of water vapour. The results, to be published in the Astrophysical Journal, indicate that the atmosphere consists mainly of hydrogen and helium.