Out of this world: University collaboration discovers new planet
An exoplanet smaller than Neptune, but three times the size of Earth, has been discovered in the Neptunian Desert, by an international collaboration of astronomers, led by the University of Warwick.
The planet has astronomers baffled as it was located in a region where it simply shouldn’t exist.
Dubbed the “Forbidden planet”, NGTS-4B was found in a celestial “desert” 920 light years from Earth. It has its own atmosphere, a surface temperature of 1,000 degrees Celsius, and a canny knack for survival.
The Neptunian Desert is the region close to stars where no Neptune-sized planets are found. This area receives strong irradiation from the star, meaning the planets do not retain their gaseous atmosphere as they evaporate leaving just a rocky core.
According to astronomers, the new planet defies all previous research by existing so close to its star that its atmosphere should have evaporated. It is believed it may have moved into the Neptunian Desert recently, in the last one million years, or it was very big and the atmosphere is still evaporating.
“This planet must be tough – it is right in the zone where we expected Neptune-sized planets could not survive,” Dr Richard West, from the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick, said in a statement from the university.
“It is truly remarkable that we found a transiting planet via a star dimming by less than 0.2 percent – this has never been done before by telescopes on the ground, and it was great to find after working on this project for a year.
“We are now scouring out data to see if we can see any more planets in the Neptune Desert – perhaps the desert is greener than was once thought.”
The proud discoverers of this tenacious exoplanet are a collection of university and private research groups working together. The full team includes UK Universities Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, and Queen’s University Belfast, together with Observatoire de Genève, DLR Berlin and Universidad de Chile.
The team carries out its work at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in the heart of the Atacama Desert, Chile.
Universities reaching for the stars
This isn’t the only major breakthrough in space exploration this year to come from a university collaboration.
In April, astronomers captured the first image of a black hole, heralding a revolution in our understanding of the universe’s most enigmatic objects.
The somewhat blurry image showed a halo of dust and gas, tracing the outline of a colossal black hole, at the heart of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years from Earth.
The breakthrough image was captured by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, a collective of 13 stakeholders, including the University of Chicago, Goethe University Frankfurt, and Radboud University, along with non-academic organisations like the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, and Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy.
Sheperd Doeleman, EHT director and Harvard University senior research fellow said: “Black holes are the most mysterious objects in the universe. We have seen what we thought was unseeable. We have taken a picture of a black hole.”
The future looks bright for university-led space exploration with undergraduate students getting involved in the early stages.
Just last week, it was announced students from the University of Southern California set space records when they launched what is likely the first-ever student designed and student-built rocket past the boundary of space.
Their achievement ends a decade-long informal competition among engineering schools worldwide to create the first university rocket to achieve spaceflight.
With such promising progress, the future of space exploration looks set to be collboration-made.