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NASA's exoplanet hunter gathers bizarre worlds and exploding stars

The Transit Exoplanet Survey Satellite is designed to hunt exoplanets near our solar system. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Published by MIT

SEATTLE, Washington

Just nine months after NASA's launch, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) has found at least eight planets, with more than 300 Planet candidates wait for the wings.

A bizarre planet unveiled on January 23, revealing at least 23 times Earth's mass, is one of the confirmed planets, some of which have already been reported.

The newly described planet once buzzes around its star every 36 days in an extended orbit, says Xu Chelsea Huang, TESS scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge. Strangely enough, there is evidence of a planet that is not much larger than the Earth and orbits closer to the star than the 23-mass planet.

How the small inner planet stays on this path while a larger planet sways in an elliptical orbit around the same star is a mystery. "This is the most extreme system of this kind of architecture," says Huang. "We do not know how that could happen." The star is known as HD 21

749 and is 16 Parsecs (53 light years) from Earth in the constellation Reticulum.

Huang reported the findings at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington.

A Catalog of Curiosities

TESS's other discoveries include a super-hot world, LHS 3844 b, which swirls around its star – a red dwarf star that is only 15% the size of the Sun – every 11 hours. Another 20 to Thirty planets discovered by TESS are on the verge of being released, Huang says.

TESS works better than team members would have dreamed, says George Ricker, physicist at MIT and the mission's lead investigator. His four cameras see objects 20% weaker and focus more than originally expected.

The spacecraft also does more than chasing planets. Mission scientists have studied 101 examples of stars that suddenly brightened, probably as a result of supernova explosions, says Michael Fausnaugh, astronomer at MIT. As TESS gazes steadily at a piece of the sky for 27 days and then moves to a neighboring piece, he gains an unprecedented view of these exploding stars as they lighten and then weaken.

"Based on the brightness and shape of this torch," Fausnaugh says, "There's a lot of science that can be done." For example, astronomers can study the way in which the light increases to provide clues to star types TESS discovered six supernovae during its first month of observation, and NASA's predecessor, the NASA Kepler Space Telescope, has discovered five in the space of four years, says Fausnaugh.

TESS scans the entire system The spacecraft could conceivably work for decades, says Ricker, and his team is writing a proposal to NASA requesting TESS's mission over the first two years This proposal should be due by February 1st, but Ricker is not sure when it will be due.

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