Space

July 18, 2012

NASA’s Spitzer find evidence for an explanet smaller than Earth

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have detected what they believe is a planet two-thirds the size of Earth.

The exoplanet candidate, called UCF-1.01, is located a mere 33 light-years away, making it possibly the nearest world to our solar system that is smaller than our home planet.

Exoplanets circle stars beyond our sun. Only a handful smaller than Earth have been found so far. Spitzer has performed transit studies on known exoplanets, but UCF-1.01 is the first ever identified with the telescope, pointing to a possible role for Spitzer in helping discover potentially habitable, terrestrial-sized worlds.

“We have found strong evidence for a very small, very hot and very near planet with the help of the Spitzer Space Telescope,” said Kevin Stevenson from the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Stevenson is lead author of the paper, which has been accepted for publication in The Astrophysical Journal. “Identifying nearby small planets such as UCF-1.01 may one day lead to their characterization using future instruments.”

The hot new planet candidate was found unexpectedly in Spitzer observations. Stevenson and his colleagues were studying the Neptune-sized exoplanet GJ 436b, already known to exist around the red-dwarf star GJ 436. In the Spitzer data, the astronomers noticed slight dips in the amount of infrared light streaming from the star, separate from the dips caused by GJ 436b. A review of Spitzer archival data showed the dips were periodic, suggesting a second planet might be blocking out a small fraction of the star’s light.

This technique, used by a number of observatories including NASA’s Kepler space telescope, relies on transits to detect exoplanets. The duration of a transit and the small decrease in the amount of light registered reveals basic properties of an exoplanet, such as its size and distance from its star. In UCF-1.01’s case, its diameter would be approximately 5,200 miles (8,400 kilometers), or two-thirds that of Earth. UCF-1.01 would revolve quite tightly around GJ 436, at about seven times the distance of the Earth from the moon, with its “year” lasting only 1.4 Earth days. Given this proximity to its star, far closer than the planet Mercury is to our sun, the exoplanet’s surface temperature would be more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (almost 600 degrees Celsius).

If the roasted, diminutive planet candidate ever had an atmosphere, it almost surely has evaporated. UCF-1.01 might therefore resemble a cratered, mostly geologically dead world like Mercury. Paper co-author Joseph Harrington, also of the University of Central Florida and principal investigator of the research, suggested another possibility; that the extreme heat of orbiting so close to GJ 436 has melted the exoplanet’s surface.

“The planet could even be covered in magma,” Harrington said.

In addition to UCF-1.01, Stevenson and his colleagues noticed hints of a third planet, dubbed UCF-1.02, orbiting GJ 436. Spitzer has observed evidence of the two new planets several times each. However, even the most sensitive instruments are unable to measure exoplanet masses as small as UCF-1.01 and UCF-1.02, which are perhaps only one-third the mass of the Earth. Because knowing the mass is required for confirming a discovery, the paper authors are cautiously calling both bodies exoplanet candidates for now.

Of the approximately 1,800 stars identified by Kepler as candidates for having planetary systems, just three are verified to contain sub-Earth-sized exoplanets. Of these, only one exoplanet is thought to be smaller than the Spitzer candidates, with a radius similar to Mars, or 57 percent that of Earth.

“I hope future observations will confirm these exciting results, which show Spitzer may be able to discover exoplanets as small as Mars,” said Michael Werner, Spitzer Project Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Even after almost nine years in space, Spitzer’s observations continue to take us in new and important scientific directions.”

JPL manages Spitzer for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at Caltech in Pasadena. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

Headlines November 26, 2014

News: When Hagel leaves, new SecDef faces big questions about the military’s futureĀ - President Obama’s new pick to run the Pentagon will face a dizzying set of challenges affecting the Defense Department’s mission, budget and culture. Who will be the next Secretary of Defense?- Following the Nov. 24 surprise announcement from the White House, the...
 
 

News Briefs November 26, 2014

Navy to decommission two more ships in Puget Sound The Navy recently decommissioned the guided missile frigate USS Ingraham at Everett, Wash. It will be towed to Bremerton and scrapped. The Daily Herald reports the Navy also plans to decommission another ship at the Everett homeport and also one stationed in Bremerton. Naval Station Everett...
 
 

NASA airborne campaigns tackle climate questions from Africa to Arctic

NASA photograph The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support of five new investigations into how different aspects of the interconnected Earth system influence climate change. NASA photograph The DC-8 airborne laboratory is one of several NASA aircraft that will fly in support of five new investigations into...
 

 
Air Force photograph by Rick Goodfriend

16T Pitch Boom reactivated to support wind tunnel tests

Air Force photograph by Rick Goodfriend The Pitch Boom at the AEDC 16-foot transonic wind tunnel (16T) was recently reactivated. This model support system is used in conjunction with a roll mechanism to provide a combined pitch...
 
 

Northrop Grumman supports U.S. Air Force Minuteman missile test launch

Northrop Grumman recently supported the successful flight testing of the U.S. Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile weapon system. The operational flight test was conducted as part of the Air Force Global Strike Command’s Force Development Evaluation Program. This program demonstrates and supports assessment of the accuracy, availability and reliability of the...
 
 
army-detector

Scientists turn handheld JCAD into a dual-use chemical, explosives detector

Scientists at the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., proved it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks by adding the ability to detect explosive materials to the Joint Chemical Age...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>