TESS Finds Potentially Habitable Super-Earth Just 31 Light Years Away


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NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has only been scanning the skies for about a year, but it has already identified several new candidate exoplanets. As astronomers were working to confirm one recent sighting, they happened upon something unexpected. That solar system, known as GJ 357, hosts not one but three exoplanets. What’s more, one of those planets is a super-Earth in the habitable region of the star. 

TESS uses the transit method to spot exoplanets with its array of cameras, similar to the dearly departed Kepler satellite. It can scan multiple stars at the same time, watching for the telltale dips in light that indicate an exoplanet has passed in front of its host star. That’s what TESS saw in GJ 357, which is only 31 light-years away. To confirm the existence of the exoplanet dubbed GJ 357 b, astronomers used ground-based telescopes to measure the star’s radial velocity. This alternative method looks for tiny changes in light caused when a star “wobbles” in response to the gravity of orbiting planets. 

The team confirmed GJ 357 b, but they also found two more exoplanets now known as GJ 357 c and GJ 357 d. GJ 357 is a small M-type dwarf star, which is 40 percent cooler than the sun. GJ 357 b orbits the star in just 3.9 days and is 22 percent larger than Earth. The surface equilibrium temperature (a measure of solar radiation only) is 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius), ruling out life as we know it. GJ 357 c is a bit farther out, but still too hot for life. It’s 3.4 times as massive as Earth and orbits ever 9.1 Earth days. The temperature here is 260 degrees F (127 degrees C).

Astronomers are most interested in GJ 357 d, which sits near the outer edge of the system’s habitable zone with a 55.7-day orbit around the star. It’s 6.1 times more massive than Earth, meaning it could be rocky or gaseous. If it’s a rocky planet, it would be about twice as large as Earth. 

According to the team, GJ 357 d has an equilibrium temperature of  -64 degrees F (-53 degrees C). That sounds too low to be even potentially habitable, but this is only a measure of solar radiation. Earth’s equilibrium temperature is -1 degree F (-18 degrees C), but the atmosphere increases the surface temperature. GJ 357 d gets about as much solar radiation as Mars, and a sufficiently dense atmosphere could allow liquid water to flow on its surface. Astronomers around the world plan to take a closer look at this nearby super-Earth over the coming years.

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NASA’s TESS Spots 3 New Exoplanets in Rare Solar System


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The Kepler planet-hunting satellite is long gone, but NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is just getting started. This satellite has spotted a few exoplanets early in its mission, and the most recent batch includes some extremely weird worlds along with yet another super-Earth. The super-Earth is scorching hot, and the others are cooler. However, they’re not ice worlds like Neptune.  

All three planets orbit a star called TOI-270, which sits roughly 73 light-years away. TOI-270 is about 40 percent smaller than the sun and one-third cooler. Still, the smallest of the three planets (TOI 270 b) orbits close enough to the star (every 3.4 Earth days) to be inhospitable to life as we know it. It has an equilibrium surface temperature of 490 degrees Fahrenheit (254 degrees Celsius). It’s only 25 percent larger than Earth and has 1.9 times the mass, so scientists believe it’s a rocky object. 

The other two planets are chilly, and they don’t appear to have any analogs in our solar system. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are 2.4 and 2.1 times larger than Earth, respectively. They most likely have a mass between five and seven times that of Earth. These planets orbit closer to their star than Earth does to the sun — 5.7 days for TOI 270 c and 11.4 days for TOI 270 d. However, the cooler temperature of TOI-270 means they’re much less extreme. 

The TESS spacecraft.

Most of the gas giants we detect in other solar systems are either so-called hot Jupiters or ice giants like Neptune. TOI 270 c and TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d are fascinating because they’re a middle ground between the two. TOI 270 c is toasty, but not as warm as a hot Jupiter at 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). TOI 270 d is not exactly cozy at 150 degrees Fahrenheit (67 degrees C), but that’s potentially habitable for very robust forms of life. Again, these are equilibrium temperatures, which is based only on the energy it receives from the star. The real temperature could be higher or lower. 

Astronomers consider the TOI-270 system an ideal place to learn more about planetary evolution. We don’t have planets like TOI 270 c and TOI 270 d in our solar system, so they could have much to teach us. Perhaps the most exciting thing about TOI-270 is its location in the sky. It will be in the James Webb Space Telescope’s field of view for over six months when it’s launched. Astronomers will be able to gather a huge amount of data about this distinctive solar system, and that could change the way we understand planetary development.

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