Dozens of new exoplanets have been discovered (Picture: Getty/Science Photo Libra)
The exoplanets, meaning those outside our solar system, were discovered using Nasa’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). They are similar in size to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, but importantly are much further from their host star than most exoplanets found so far.
This means they are in the cooler ‘habitable zone’ where temperatures may allow the formation of liquid water, essential for life.
Finding exoplanets is extraordinarily difficult – we can’t see the planets themselves using a telescope. Instead, astronomers look for dips in the brightness of stars, which indicate something coming between them and us, temporarily dimming the brightness. These are known as transits.
In the case of exoplanets, it usually requires three transits to be observed in order to determine how long one orbit takes.
However, an international team led by Faith Hawthorn at the University of Warwick, investigated systems with only two transits observed. This generally meant there was a much longer time between each dip in brightness, indicating a longer orbit, and so a planet further from its sun.
‘We ran an initial algorithm searching for transits on a sample of 1.4 million stars,’ said PhD researcher Faith Hawthorn. ‘After a painstaking vetting process, we whittled this down to just 85 systems that appear to host exoplanets that transit only twice in the dataset.’
The 85 bodies still need to be confirmed as exoplanets, but the team hopes this will be achieved with further observations. Of the total, 60 are brand new discoveries, while 25 had already been detected in TESS data.
‘It’s very exciting to find these planets, and to know that many of them may be in the right temperature zone to sustain life,’ said co-author Professor Daniel Bayliss.
‘The project was a real team effort and involved researchers at varying stages of their careers – it’s wonderful to see it come to light.
‘Alongside the lead researcher, PhD student Faith Hawthorn, an undergraduate student Kaylen Smith Darnbrook helped us to analyse the data during a summer project. It is a major achievement for an undergraduate to have their research work published, so it was a proud moment for us all.
‘Encompassing the collaborative spirit of the TESS mission, we have also made our discoveries public so that astronomers across the globe can study these unique exoplanets in more detail.
‘We hope this will drive further research into these fascinating exoplanets.’
The search for alien life is at full speed right now on many fronts.
Last year a mission blasted off to Jupiter’s icy moons, one of the biggest hopes for life within our own solar system.
However, a paper published in November also suggested Mercury could host life in salty glaciers hidden beneath its surface.
Further afield, the JWST recently found the strongest evidence for life yet in an exoplanet 120 light-years away. Catchily named K2-18 b, it was found to have possible traces of dimethyl sulphide in its atmosphere – a molecule only produced by living organisms on Earth.
And in 2019, a Nasa-backed study said alien life could be found on an exoplanet ‘within a few decades’.
We’ll hold them to that.