TESS Rounds Up its First Planets, Snares Far-flung Supernovae

NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found three confirmed exoplanets, or worlds beyond our solar system, in its first three months of observations. The mission’s sensitive cameras also captured 100 short-lived changes — most of them likely stellar outbursts — in the same region of the sky. They include six supernova explosions whose brightening light was recorded by TESS even before the outbursts were discovered by ground-based telescopes. The new discoveries show that TESS is delivering on its goal of discovering planets around nearby bright stars. Using ground-based telescopes, astronomers are now conducting follow-up observations on more than 280 TESS exoplanet candidates. The first confirmed discovery is a world called Pi Mensae c about twice Earth’s size. Every six days, the new planet orbits the star Pi Mensae, located about 60 light-years away and visible to the unaided eye in the southern constellation Mensa. The bright star Pi Mensae is similar to the Sun in mass and size. Next is LHS 3884b, a rocky planet about 1.3 times Earth’s size located about 49 light-years away in the constellation Indus, making it among the closest transiting exoplanets known. The star is a cool M-type dwarf star about one-fifth the size of our Sun. Completing an orbit every 11 hours, the planet lies so close to its star that some of its rocky surface on the daytime side may form pools of molten lava. The third — and possibly fourth — planets orbit HD 21749, a K-type star about 80 percent the Sun’s mass and located 53 light-years away in the southern constellation Reticulum. The confirmed planet, HD 21749b, is about three times Earth’s size and 23 times its mass, orbits every 36 days, and has a surface temperature around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150 degrees Celsius). It is the longest-period transiting planet within 100 light-years of the solar system, and it has the coolest surface temperature of a transiting exoplanet around a star brighter than 10th magnitude, or about 25 times fainter than the limit of unaided human vision. What’s even more exciting are hints the system holds a second candidate planet about the size of Earth that orbits the star every eight days. If confirmed, it could be the smallest TESS planet to date. In its primary two-year mission, TESS will observe nearly the whole sky, providing a rich catalog of worlds around nearby stars. Their proximity to Earth will enable detailed characterization of the planets through follow-up observations from space- and ground-based telescopes. But in its month-long stare into each sector, TESS records many additional phenomena, including comets, asteroids, flare stars, eclipsing binaries, white dwarf stars and supernovae, resulting in an astronomical treasure trove. In the first TESS sector alone, observed between July 25 and Aug. 22, 2018, the mission caught dozens of short-lived, or transient, events, including images of six supernovae in distant galaxies that were later seen by ground-based telescopes. These early observations hold the key to understanding a class of supernovae that serve as an important yardstick for cosmological studies. Type Ia supernovae form through two channels. One involves the merger of two orbiting white dwarfs, compact remnants of stars like the Sun. The other occurs in systems where a white dwarf draws gas from a normal star, gradually gaining mass until it becomes unstable and explodes. Astronomers don’t know which scenario is more common, but TESS could detect modifications to the early light of the explosion caused by the presence of stellar companion.

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