NASA's Planet Hunter Spots 3 New Worlds

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Artist rendition of Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS)
The TESS spacecraft will scan an area of the sky 400 times larger than that covered by the Kepler space telescope.

Well, that was fast.

Several months into its mission to search the night sky for alien worlds, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), is already making new discoveries.

NASA officials confirmed the satellite found three exoplanets in its first three months. In the same region of these new worlds, TESS discovered 100 short-lived changes — most of which are likely stellar outbursts. Of those outbursts, six of them were supernova explosions.

The space telescope, a successor to the decommissioned Kepler space telescope, uses its four optical cameras to scan stars and record periodic dips in brightness, a tell-tale sign that a planet is "transiting" in front of its host star.

The first discovery

A preprint paper from September 2018 presented initial findings of a new exoplanet roughly twice the size of Earth and orbiting the star Pi Mensae. Called "Pi Mensae c" and located some 60 light-years from Earth, the exoplanet takes only 6.27 days to complete an orbit around its parent star.

"This is one of the first objects we looked at," says Chelsea Huang, a TESS scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told New Scientist. "We were immediately saying 'Hey this is too good to be true!'"

As shown in the Tweet below, TESS's "first light" survey of the southern sky includes a vast swath of potential targets.

Soon after followed by 2 more discoveries

Less than 24 hours after the announcement of their first discovery, the TESS team followed up on Twitter with the exciting news that they had already discovered a second exoplanet candidate 49 light-years from Earth.

LHS 3884b is a rocky exoplanet roughly 1.3 times the size of Earth and is 49 light-years away. It's located in the constellation Indus, which makes it one of the closest transiting exoplanets discovered so far.

Shortly after LHS 3884b was discovered, NASA announced a third exoplanet, HD 21749b. This exoplanet is much larger than the other two with a mass 23 times that of Earth's and three times larger. It orbits every 36 days and has a surface temperature of 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

"This planet has a greater density than Neptune, but it isn’t rocky. It could be a water planet or have some other type of substantial atmosphere," wrote Diana Dragomir, a Hubble Fellow at MIT's Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and lead author of the study's paper.

In fact, should everything go according to plan, announcements like these will soon become the norm. Over the course of its two-year prime mission, NASA expects TESS to uncover as many as 20,000 exoplanets during its survey of roughly 85 percent of the night sky. Once located, the more intriguing exoplanets will be studied by future telescopes like the James Webb –– launching in 2020 –– to better gauge if these alien worlds host conditions suitable for life.

"In a sea of stars brimming with new worlds, TESS is casting a wide net and will haul in a bounty of promising planets for further study," said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in a press release. "This first light science image shows the capabilities of TESS's cameras, and shows that the mission will realize its incredible potential in our search for another Earth."

Have we found Vulcan?

The planet Vulcan from 'Star Trek.'
The planet Vulcan from 'Star Trek.'. ViacomCBS /

While TESS is certainly receiving a lot of attention, it's not the only eye trained on finding new worlds. A team of researchers using the Dharma Endowment Foundation Telescope, a 50-inch telescope atop Mount Lemmon in southern Arizona, have announced the discovery of a rocky exoplanet orbiting a triple-star system 16 light-years from Earth. As luck would have it, the exoplanet's parent star, called 40 Eridani A, is precisely the location where "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned Spock's home planet of Vulcan residing.

Together with three astronomers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Roddenberry argued in brilliant geek-speak why previous "Star Trek" authors were incorrect in assuming that the system's other star, Epsilon Eridani, would host Vulcan's orbit.

"The HK observations suggest that 40 Eridani is 4 billion years old, about the same age as the Sun. In contrast, Epsilon Eridani is barely 1 billion years old," Roddenberry and Co. wrote in a letter to Sky & Telescope in 1991. "Based on the history of life on Earth, life on any planet around Epsilon Eridani would not have had time to evolve beyond the level of bacteria. On the other hand, an intelligent civilization could have evolved over the eons on a planet circling 40 Eridani. So the latter is the more likely Vulcan sun."

While the newly discovered exoplanet, for now, is classified as "HD 26965b," the team behind the discovery is already working to petition to have it officially named Vulcan. As for the likelihood that it might host life? Jian Ge, a professor of astronomy at the University of Florida and co-author of a new paper about the discovery, told NBC News MACH that while the planet is tidally locked, with one constantly baking in the scorching light of its star, its other, cooler half might offer some hope.

"On the other hand, life can also survive underground," she said. "Like what 'Star Trek' imagines, Vulcans stay in the caves."