Newly discovered planet could have water clouds

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

Updated 3:58 PM ET, Thu June 10, 2021

(CNN)Scientists have discovered an exoplanet located 90 light-years from Earth with an intriguing atmosphere — one that could contain water clouds.Exoplanets are planets located outside of our solar system. This exoplanet, called TOI-1231 b, completes a full orbit around its star every 24 Earth days.It orbits a red, or M-type, dwarf star, known as NLTT 24399, that is smaller and dimmer than stars like our sun.

The discovery of the planet was detailed in a new study that will be published in a future issue of The Astronomical Journal.

What alien raindrops on other planets have in common with rain on Earth

What alien raindrops on other planets have in common with rain on Earth“Even though TOI 1231 b is eight times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, its temperature is similar to that of Earth, thanks to its cooler and less bright host star,” said study coauthor Diana Dragomir, an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico’s department of physics and astronomy, in a statement.

“However, the planet itself is actually larger than earth and a little bit smaller than Neptune — we could call it a sub-Neptune.”

Why this exoplanet might have clouds

The researchers were able to determine the planet’s radius and mass, which helped them calculate its density and infer its composition.Enter your email to sign up for the Wonder Theory newsletter.“close dialog”

Want to stay updated on the latest space and science news?We’ve got you.Sign Me UpBy subscribing you agree to ourprivacy policy.The exoplanet has a low density, which suggests it’s a gaseous planet rather than a rocky one like Earth, but scientists don’t yet know for certain the composition of the planet or its atmosphere.”TOI-1231 b is pretty similar in size and density to Neptune, so we think it has a similarly large, gaseous atmosphere,” said lead study author Jennifer Burt, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.”TOI1231b could have a large hydrogen or hydrogen-helium atmosphere, or a denser water vapor atmosphere,” Dragomir said. “Each of these would point to a different origin, allowing astronomers to understand whether and how planets form differently around M dwarfs when compared to the planets around our Sun, for example.”The researchers believe TOI-1231 b has an average temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), which makes it one of the coolest of the small exoplanets available for future study of its atmosphere.”Compared to most transiting planets detected thus far, which often have scorching temperatures in the many hundreds or thousands of degrees, TOI-1231 b is positively frigid,” Burt said.The cooler the exoplanet, the more likely it is to have clouds in its atmosphere.This artist's illustration shows TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light-years away from Earth.This artist’s illustration shows TOI-1231 b, a Neptune-like planet about 90 light-years away from Earth.The similarly small exoplanet K2-18 b, discovered in 2015, was recently observed in more detail, and researchers found evidence of water in its atmosphere.”TOI-1231 b is one of the only other planets we know of in a similar size and temperature range, so future observations of this new planet will let us determine just how common (or rare) it is for water clouds to form around these temperate worlds,” Burt said in a statement.This makes TOI-1231 b the perfect candidate for observations by the Hubble Space Telescope — or the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch in October. Webb will have the ability to peer into the atmospheres of exoplanets and help determine their composition. And Hubble is scheduled to observe the exoplanet later this month.Sign up for CNN’s Wonder Theory science newsletter. Explore the universe with news on fascinating discoveries, scientific advancements and more.

The search for exoplanets

Burt, Dragomir and their colleagues discovered the planet using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS. The planet-hunting satellite, launched in 2018, observes different areas of the sky for 28 days at a time. So far, TESS has helped scientists find large and small exoplanets orbiting stars like our sun as well as the smaller M dwarf stars. These diminutive stars are common in the Milky Way galaxy.When a planet crosses in front of its star during orbit, it blocks a certain amount of light. This is called a transit, and it’s one way astronomers search for exoplanets using missions like TESS.

These 7 Earth-size exoplanets named after beer may be incredibly similar

These 7 Earth-size exoplanets named after beer may be incredibly similarGiven that M dwarf stars are smaller, the amount of light blocked by a planet orbiting them is larger, which makes the transit more detectable. Scientists look for at least two transits before determining if they have found an exoplanet candidate. Follow-up observations were made using the Planet Finder Spectrograph on the Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile.

“One of the most intriguing results of the last two decades of exoplanet science is that, thus far, none of the new planetary systems we’ve discovered look anything like our own solar system,” Burt said.”This new planet we’ve discovered is still weird — but it’s one step closer to being somewhat like our neighborhood planets.”

A newly discovered space object called ‘Farfarout’ is the most distant thing in our solar system

Morgan McFall-Johnsen 20 hours ago

farfarout planetoid most distant object solar system
An artist’s interpretation of Farfarout. 
  • Astronomers discovered a planetoid orbiting the sun further than any known object in the solar system.
  • Called “Farfarout,” the object orbits the sun every 1,000 years.
  • Objects like Farfarout could help astronomers figure out whether a massive planet hides in the outskirts of our solar system.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Astronomers have discovered the most distant object ever found in our solar system.

The planetoid — the term for a small chunk of rock or dust or ice orbiting the sun — is appropriately nicknamed “Farfarout,” after the previous record-holder, “Farout,” which was discovered by the same astronomers in 2018. After years of observing the object’s trajectory across the sky, that team of researchers announced on Wednesday that they could confidently say Farfarout is, well, much farther out than any solar-system object seen before.

Farfarout is 132 astronomical units (AU) from the sun, meaning it’s 132 times farther from the sun than Earth is, and about four times as far as Pluto. It takes about 1,000 years for the planetoid to complete one orbit around the sun. 

The researchers estimate that Farfarout is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) across, which would place it on the low end of being a dwarf planet like Pluto.

“The discovery of Farfarout shows our increasing ability to map the outer solar system and observe farther and farther toward the fringes of our solar system,” Scott Sheppard, one of the astronomers who discovered the object, said in a press release. Sheppard works as a researcher at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

farfarout planetoid distance
Solar system distances to scale, showing the newly discovered planetoid, “Farfarout,” compared to other known solar system objects. 

“Only with the advancements in the last few years of large digital cameras on very large telescopes has it been possible to efficiently discover very distant objects like Farfarout,” he added. “Even though some of these distant objects are quite large — the size of dwarf planets — they are very faint because of their extreme distances from the Sun. Farfarout is just the tip of the iceberg of solar system objects in the very distant solar system.”

Finding and studying other similarly distant objects could help scientists determine whether there’s an unidentified massive planet hiding in the outskirts of our solar system. Scientists have found hints of such a planet, often referred to as Planet Nine or Planet X, in the distant dark. These clues come in the form of smaller objects whose orbital paths appear skewed.

Farfarout most likely cannot contribute to that effort, however, because Neptune appears to have significantly altered its orbit.

A snippet of a 1,000-year orbit

Earth has stayed habitable for billions of years – exactly how lucky did we get?

xtock / shutterstock

January 19, 2021 9.25am EST


  1. Toby TyrrellProfessor of Earth System Science, University of Southampton

Disclosure statement

Toby Tyrrell receives funding from UK Natural Environment Research Council


University of Southampton

University of Southampton provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.

It took evolution 3 or 4 billion years to produce Homo sapiens. If the climate had completely failed just once in that time then evolution would have come to a crashing halt and we would not be here now. So to understand how we came to exist on planet Earth, we’ll need to know how Earth managed to stay fit for life for billions of years.

This is not a trivial problem. Current global warming shows us that the climate can change considerably over the course of even a few centuries. Over geological timescales, it is even easier to change climate. Calculations show that there is the potential for Earth’s climate to deteriorate to temperatures below freezing or above boiling in just a few million years.

We also know that the Sun has become 30% more luminous since life first evolved. In theory, this should have caused the oceans to boil away by now, given that they were not generally frozen on the early Earth – this is known as the “faint young Sun paradox”. Yet, somehow, this habitability puzzle was solved.

Scientists have come up with two main theories. The first is that the Earth could possess something like a thermostat – a feedback mechanism (or mechanisms) that prevents the climate ever wandering to fatal temperatures.

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The second is that, out of a large number of planets, perhaps some just make it through by luck, and Earth is one of those. This second scenario is made more plausible by the discoveries in recent decades of many planets outside our solar system – so-called exoplanets. Astronomical observations of distant stars tell us that many have planets orbiting them, and that some are of a size and density and orbital distance such that temperatures suitable for life are theoretically possible. It has been estimated that there are at least 2 billion such candidate planets in our galaxy alone.

Planets in space.
There are many exoplanets…but how many have a stable climate? Jurik Peter / shutterstock

Scientists would love to travel to these exoplanets to investigate whether any of them have matched Earth’s billion years of climate stability. But even the nearest exoplanets, those orbiting the star Proxima Centauri, are more than four light-years away. Observational or experimental evidence is hard to come by.

Instead, I explored the same question through modelling. Using a computer program designed to simulate climate evolution on planets in general (not just Earth), I first generated 100,000 planets, each with a randomly different set of climate feedbacks. Climate feedbacks are processes that can amplify or diminish climate change – think for instance of sea-ice melting in the Arctic, which replaces sunlight-reflecting ice with sunlight-absorbing open sea, which in turn causes more warming and more melting.

In order to investigate how likely each of these diverse planets was to stay habitable over enormous (geological) timescales, I simulated each 100 times. Each time the planet started from a different initial temperature and was exposed to a randomly different set of climate events. These events represent climate-altering factors such as supervolcano eruptions (like Mount Pinatubo but much much larger) and asteroid impacts (like the one that killed the dinosaurs). On each of the 100 runs, the planet’s temperature was tracked until it became too hot or too cold or else had survived for 3 billion years, at which point it was deemed to have been a possible crucible for intelligent life.

A large volcanic eruption cloud seen from distance.
Climate-altering: the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines blasted so much ash into the atmosphere that global temperatures temporarily dropped by 0.6˚C. SRA Blaze Lipowski / picryl

The simulation results give a definite answer to this habitability problem, at least in terms of the importance of feedbacks and luck. It was very rare (in fact, just one time out of 100,000) for a planet to have such strong stabilising feedbacks that it stayed habitable all 100 times, irrespective of the random climate events. In fact, most planets that stayed habitable at least once, did so fewer than ten times out of 100. On nearly every occasion in the simulation when a planet remained habitable for 3 billion years, it was partly down to luck. At the same time, luck by itself was shown to be insufficient. Planets that were specially designed to have no feedbacks at all, never stayed habitable; random walks, buffeted around by climate events, never lasted the course.

Lots of black dots with occasional green dots.
Repeat runs in the simulation were not identical: 1,000 different planets were generated randomly and each run twice. (a) results on first run, (b) results on second run. Green circles show success (stayed habitable for 3 billion years) and black failure. Toby Tyrrell, Author provided

This overall result, that outcomes depend partly on feedbacks and partly on luck, is robust. All sorts of changes to the modelling did not affect it. By implication, Earth must therefore possess some climate-stabilising feedbacks but at the same time good fortune must also have been involved in it staying habitable. If, for instance, an asteroid or solar flare had been slightly larger than it was, or had occurred at a slightly different (more critical) time, we would probably not be here on Earth today. It gives a different perspective on why we are able to look back on Earth’s remarkable, enormously extended, history of life evolving and diversifying and becoming ever more complex to the point that it gave rise to us. Toby Tyrrell discusses his research.

Scientists find a strange signal coming from our closest neighboring star

Don’t count on aliens.

Jon Fingas@jonfingas3h ago Comments 230Shares 


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Parkes Radio Telescope - The radio telescope at Parkes, NSW, Australia, also known by its nickname,  The Dish. In 1969 it received television signals from the Apollo 11 moon landing and transmitted them to the world.
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Astronomers have encountered a mystery surprisingly close to Earth. The Guardian and Scientific American have learned that Breakthrough Listen astronomers using the Parkes telescope in Australia discovered a strange radio signal coming from Proxima Centauri, the star system closest to the Sun. The signal occupies an oddly narrow 982MHz band that’s unused by human-made spacecraft, yet not possible through known natural processes. The frequency shifts up, too, rather than down like you’d expect for a planet.

Don’t count on this as a sign of aliens. Although Proxima Centauri does host a potentially habitable planet, the signal hasn’t been detected since its initial observation between April and May 2019. Breakthrough Listen said it was still “carefully investigating” and that unusual signals are typically interference researchers couldn’t “fully explain.” As it is, it’s highly unlikely that a radio-capable civilization could live virtually next door without detection — Earth would have been bathed in radio signals from a planet ‘just’ 4.2 light-years away.

The most likely explanations so far are either a previously unknown source of Earth-based interference or a newly discovered natural phenomenon.

It’s still notable. Signal analysis lead Sofia Sheikh said Breakthrough Listen hadn’t seen a signal pass through “this many of [its] filters” used to catch interference and natural explanations. It’s comparable to the “Wow!” signal from 1977, she said — it’s at least attention-getting. Even though the cause is likely something other than extraterrestrial life, the eventual answer could be very useful.

Our galaxy’s supermassive black hole is closer to Earth than we thought

By Diane Lincoln – Live Science Contributor 5 hours ago

The European Southern Observatory’s GRAVITY instrument revealed clumps of gas swirling around just outside the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Here, a visualization of that orbiting gas.The European Southern Observatory’s GRAVITY instrument revealed clumps of gas swirling around just outside the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. Here, a visualization of that orbiting gas.(Image: © ESO/Gravity Consortium/L. Calçada)

The supermassive black hole hiding in the center of our galaxy is much closer to Earth, about 2,000 light-years closer, than scientists thought, according to new research out of Japan. 

Not only that but our solar system is moving faster than thought as it orbits this galactic center. 

All this doesn’t mean you need to worry that Earth is zooming toward the central behemoth or that we will get sucked up by the gravity monster, the researchers noted. We are still quite a ways from the black hole, dubbed Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*): 25,800 light-years, where one light-year is about 6 trillion miles (9.5 trillion kilometers).

Related: The biggest black hole findings

The study is part of the  VERA Experiment, or the VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry, whose aim is to explore the three-dimensional structure of the Milky Way. Since we live within the Milky Way, scientists can’t just take a snapshot of it to figure out its structure. Instead, they take precise measurements of stars’ sizes, positions and orbital velocities — how fast they circle the galactic center — in a scientific field called astrometry. The resulting maps can shed light on details of our Milky Way, the stars in it and possibly the universe.  

Researchers can now “measure distances of stars located farther and 30,000 light-years from our solar system,” said Tomoya Hirota, a professor in the Department of Astronomy at SOKENDAI and the leader of the data analysis team in VERA.