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Space + FlightSpace & Flight

K2 Mission Finds 80 Possible Planets in Record Time

ByAna AcevesNOVA NextNOVA Next
K2-space-telescope
Researchers from MIT used an algorithm to quickly identify 80 possible exoplanets amid 50,000 stars.

About 114 light-years from Earth, a planet orbits the star HD73344. It’s the brightest planet host ever discovered by the K2 mission, a follow-up to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. The planet orbits its host star every 15 days; researchers estimate it’s about 2.5 times the size of Earth and 10 times as massive. This planet is immensely hot, with temperatures around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit—about the temperature of lava erupting from a volcano. This new find is interesting in and of itself, but what’s really interesting is how quickly it was discovered.

Just weeks after K2 made available the raw data from two of its campaigns, the data was released to the astronomy community in the form of pixel-level images. A typical analysis of this kind takes between several months to a year.

Ian Crossfield and Liang Yu from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used an algorithm to sift through about 50,000 stars. They narrowed the set down to about 1,000 stars of interest by observing them for signs of transits—periodic dips in a star’s brightness that indicate a passing planet. In all, they discovered 80 planet candidates.

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The sooner this information is available, the sooner astronomers can use ground-based telescopes to follow-up on a possible planetary transit and confirm that the planet actually exists.

Since they released the results, astronomers have verified four of the candidates as definite exoplanets, including the planet orbiting HD73344. The speed at which the team narrowed down the search could prove useful when astronomers start receiving data from TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which is designed to observe stars in 30-day swaths instead of K2’s 80-day swaths. Here’s Abby Abazorius, reporting for MIT News:

“We found one of the most exciting planets that K2 has found in its entire mission, and we did it more rapidly than any effort has done before,” Crossfield says. “This is showing the path forward for how the TESS mission is going to do the same thing in spades, all over the entire sky, for the next several years.”

The analysis done on the K2 data served as a dress rehearsal for TESS, according to Crossfield. When the TESS data starts coming in, there will only be a few months during which the stars in that field of view will be visible. If researchers can get the candidates out to the community quickly, then they can start observing systems and finding out more about the atmospheric composition of our newly-discovered neighbors.

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Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech