(TMU) — NASA’s latest planet-hunting satellite has discovered three new worlds, including an entirely new alien planet with characteristics unseen within our own solar system.
The strange new exoplanets, which means they are outside of our solar system, are a part of the TOI-270 star system.
The new system, which revolves around a neighboring star, includes a rocky super-Earth that is slightly larger than our planet, as well as two other gaseous planets twice the size of Earth. Researchers claim that the planets are a “missing link” that sits between the smaller rocky worlds, including our Earth and Mars, and much larger gaseous planets such as Saturn and Jupiter.
The discovery, which is detailed in the latest issue of scientific journal Nature Astronomy, was made possible by NASA’s Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which was launched into space in 2018 and has since scanned the universe for stars and planets capable of supporting alien life.
The smaller super-Earth lies within the habitable zone, meaning that it lies within the range of distance from a Sun-like star that makes it temperate enough to allow for liquid-water oceans. It is also a “quiet” planet, meaning that it has fewer flares and scientists will be able to observe it and its neighboring planets with greater ease.
However, researchers believe that its atmosphere is so thick and dense that the planet is extremely hot, potentially making the surface too warm to support the type of life found on our planet.
Stephen Kane, a UC Riverside associate professor of planetary astrophysics and member of UCR’s NASA-funded Alternative Earths Astrobiology Center, said in a press release that the discovery is exactly what NASA’s satellite was designed to find.
“We’ve found very few planets like this in the habitable zone, and many fewer around a quiet star, so this is rare. We don’t have a planet quite like this in our solar system.”
With a distance of only 73 light years away, the exoplanets are also among the closest ever found.
“The diameter of our galaxy is 100,000 light years, and our galaxy is just one of millions of galaxies … So, 73 light years means it’s one of our neighboring stars.”
Researchers hope that the “missing link” solar system will shed greater light on why so few worlds exist at that size.
Lead researcher Maximilian Gunther from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said:
“TOI-270 will soon allow us to study this ‘missing link’ between rocky Earth-like planets and gas-dominant mini-Neptunes, because here all of these types formed in the same system.”
Continuing, Gunther said:
“TOI-270 is a true Disneyland for exoplanet science, and one of the prime systems TESS was set out to discover.
It is an exceptional laboratory for not one, but many reasons – it really ticks all the boxes.”
Indeed, the researchers are hopeful that other planets within this solar system are waiting to be found.
The planets link together in what researchers describe as a “resonant chain,” meaning that their orbits line up in neat, whole integers—giving them a “resonance” with one another that gives researchers a method to discover more planets. Within our own solar system, the moons of Jupiter also line up in a “resonant” formation.
“For TOI-270, these planets line up like pearls on a string.
That’s a very interesting thing, because it lets us study their dynamical behavior. And you can almost expect, if there are more planets, the next one would be somewhere further out, at another integer ratio.”
The team remains hopeful that additional planets will be discovered in the neighboring solar system. And while the smaller planet is unlikely to host life due to its dense atmosphere, those planets lying at a greater distance from the star could be cooler and more capable of allowing water to pool on their surface.