Astronomers make rare exoplanet discovery, and a giant leap in detecting Earth-like bodies | Science & Technology

Astronomers have made the rare discovery of a small, cold exoplanet and its massive outer companion — shedding light on the formation of planets like Earth.

The findings include a planet with radius and mass between that of the Earth and Neptune, with a potential orbit around its host star of 146 days. The star system also contains an outer, large companion, 100 times the mass of Jupiter.

This is a rare discovery, with exoplanets smaller and lighter than Neptune and Uranus being notoriously hard to detect, with only a few being identified to this day. Such rare systems are particularly interesting to better understand planetary formation and evolution; they are thought to be a key step for the detection of Earth-like planets around stars.

The new planetary system is discovered around the star HD88986. This star has a similar temperature to the Sun with a slightly larger radius and is bright enough to be seen by keen observers at dark sky sites across the UK, such as Bannau Brycheiniog National Park (Brecon Beacons).

This study, published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, is led by Neda Heidari, an Iranian postdoctoral fellow at the Institut d’astrophysique de Paris (IAP). In the UK, Thomas Wilson, a senior research fellow at the University of Warwick, co-led the analysis of satellite data including searching for new planets. The team also includes researchers at 29 other institutes from nine countries including Switzerland, Chile, and the USA.

A cold, Neptune-like exoplanet

The planetary system includes a cold planet smaller than Neptune, a so-called sub-Neptune, HD88986b. This planet has the longest orbital period (146 days) among known exoplanets smaller than Neptune or Uranus with precise mass measurements.

Neda Heidari, IAP, explained: “Most of the planets we’ve discovered and measured for their mass and radius have short orbits, typically less than 40 days. To provide a comparison with our solar system, even Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun,…

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