Citizens scientists identify an unusual planet in the habitable "Goldilocks Zone"



The K2-288Bb planet illustrated here is slightly smaller than Neptune and located about 226 light years away.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Francis Reddy

Scientists have discovered a new and rare type of planet beyond our solar system that is about twice the size of the Earth and located in the habitable, or "Goldilocks zone," around its star where liquid water may exist on the surface of the exoplanet.

"It's a very interesting discovery because of the way it was found, its temperate orbit and why planets of this size seem to be relatively uncommon," said Adina Feinstein, a University of Chicago student and the lead author of an article on the discovery. a press release.

The announcement was made officially at the biannual meeting of the American Astronomy Society in Seattle on Monday. The article will be published in The Astronomical Journal.

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The newly discovered planet is called K2-288Bb and, like the fictitious Star Wars Tatooine Planet universe, it can be found in a binary stellar system. In other words, any alien life forms on the surface of this world at a distance of 226 light-years are often bathed in the light of two suns.

All that extra sunlight may not match the same level of sun and heat that makes Tatooine a desert planet. This is because the K2-288Bb orbits the dimmer of the two M-dwarf stars in the system.

M-dwarfs also come along with a high incidence of potentially sterilizing solar flares.

If the planet is not being hit by radiation, however, a new unrelated article co-authored by Abraham Loeb of Harvard suggests that it can receive enough energy to sustain life. (You may recall that Loeb made waves last year with a study suggesting that the interstellar object Oumuamua may actually be an alien probe.)

Loeb and postdoctoral researcher Mansavi Lingam conclude that low mass M-dwarfs need to be at least a fifth of the Sun's mass to sustain photosynthesis, oxygen accumulation and a biosphere that sustains life on any orbiting planets in their habitable areas. The article is set to be published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The K2-288Bb star meets the threshold with a mass that equals about a third of our sun. Such a star is "theoretically capable of sustaining biospheres with the same productivity as Earth," according to Loeb and Lingam.

It is too early to say for sure what the surface of the newly discovered planet would look like. It may be a relatively large rocky planet, or it may be a small, gaseous, Neptune-like world, very different from our own. Only a few exoplanets of this unusual size range have been found so far.

The story of the discovery of K2-288Bb is also interesting because it was seen largely with the help of volunteers looking at the light data from the NASA Kepler Space Telescope with their own eyes rather than being picked up by the software analyzing the data . Citizen scientists who participated in a program called Exoplanet Explorers were able to identify a planet that the algorithms had lost.

"It took the keen eyes of the citizen scientists to make this find extremely valuable and point us to it," Feinstein said.

The discovery may help astronomers understand why there is a gap in the catalog of known exoplanets between the so-called "super-Earths" and "mini-Neptunes."

It also shows that although Kepler is no longer his successor, Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is already making its own discoveries, the pioneer spacecraft still lives through its data.

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