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How a Toowoomba telescope helped discover a new planet the size of Neptune


Researchers from the University of Southern Queensland have helped NASA discover a new planet the size of Neptune, “only” 32 light-years away.

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Queensland researchers have helped NASA discover a new planet the size of Neptune that is “only” 32 light-years away.

NASA first spotted the planet two years ago and have been working to confirm its existence with researchers around the world, including a team at the Mount Kent observatory, south of Toowoomba.

“It’s only 32 light-years away, which means the light we see tonight left it in 1988,” said University of Southern Queensland (USQ) astrophysicist, Professor Jonti Horner.

“It sounds a long way, but in reality it’s one of our nearest neighbours.”

The planet, AU Mic b, was found orbiting the young star AU Microscopii (AU Mic), which was trillions of kilometres from Earth in the southern constellation Microscopium.

Horner said they were surprised to discover the planet orbited the star on the same plane as the star’s equator, which meant the system was similar to our solar system.

“That’s really useful and really exciting to us because it means that we’re getting to see a planetary system in its formation,” he said.

“It’s not identical to our solar system, but there’s a lot of links there and this is just in our own back yard.

“This really is a baby planet around a baby star, and it’s forming a system that in some ways at least will eventually look like our own.”

Intensely hot and uninhabitable

Horner said AU Mic b would not be suitable for people to live on due to its intense heat of more than 1000 degrees Celsius.

“[The planet] is around a baby star that’s very temperamental and tantrum-prone,” he said.

“It gets blasted by outbursts from this star, which is cranky and has big flares.”

The infant planet was discovered by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and the recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope.

“NASA has this spacecraft called TESS whizzing around Earth that’s scouring the nights looking for things that could be planets,” Professor Horner said.

“When NASA says, ‘We think we found a planet here’, they need all the astronomers around the world who have the opportunity to look at that star and learn more about it to be able to rule out all other possibilities.

“And that’s what we at Mount Kent were involved with, along with teams all around the world.”

New super-Earths discovered

USQ astronomers have also helped the international RedDots team discover a system of super-Earth planets that has been orbiting Gliese 887, the brightest red dwarf star in the night sky.

The planets, which are much bigger than Earth, are estimated to be rocky in makeup.

They are close to the habitable zone of Gliese 887, which means they could hold water in a liquid form on their surfaces.

These results were published in the journal Nature.

– ABC / Ellen Jolley

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