NASA Discovers Super-Earth in Habitable Zone

What is TOI-715 b?

TOI-715 b is a newly discovered ‘super-Earth’ planet, located 137 light-years away in the habitable zone of its star. It is about one and a half times as wide as Earth, and could have the right temperature for liquid water to form on its surface, if it has a suitable atmosphere.

How Super-Earth found?

The planet was detected by the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which has been adding to astronomers’ stockpile of habitable-zone exoplanets since its launch in 2018. TESS detects planets by observing the tiny dips in brightness when they cross the faces of their stars. The existence of TOI-715 b was confirmed by a ground-based telescope survey, the Search for habitable Planets EClipsing Ultra-cOOl Stars (SPECULOOS).

What is its star like?

The star of TOI-715 b is a red dwarf, smaller and cooler than our Sun; a number of such stars are known to host small, rocky worlds. These planets make far closer orbits than those around stars like our Sun, but because red dwarfs are smaller and cooler, the planets can crowd closer and still be safely within the star’s habitable zone. The tighter orbits also mean those that cross the faces of their stars – that is, when viewed by our space telescopes – cross far more often. In the case of planet b, that’s once every 19 days, a “year” on this strange world.

Are there other planets in the system?

The same system also might harbor a second, Earth-sized planet, which was detected by SPECULOOS. The smaller planet could be only slightly larger than Earth, and also might dwell just inside the conservative habitable zone.

What can we learn from it?

The newly discovered super-Earth, TOI-715 b, adds to the list of worlds discovery teams suggest might be examined by the James Webb Space Telescope. Launched in December 2021, the telescope has settled into its orbit a million miles from Earth and already has begun reading out the gases present in exoplanet atmospheres. The telescope’s instruments include spectrographs, which can capture light shining from a parent star through the atmospheres of exoplanets, providing a spectrum and a fingerprint of the types of gases present. That, and other methods the telescope uses to analyze atmospheres, potentially could reveal which of these planets might be habitable worlds.

Why is it important?

The discovery of TOI-715 b is a remarkable achievement for NASA and TESS, as well as for the ground-based observatories that confirmed its existence. It shows that our search for life beyond Earth is advancing with new tools and techniques, and that we are getting closer to answering one of the most profound questions in science: Are we alone in the universe?

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