Grad School Student Finds Large Exoplanet ‘Twice The Size Of Earth’ A Mere 145 Light-Years Away

Leading an entire team of astronomers from universities in Canada, Germany, and the U.S., grad school student Merrin Peterson has just discovered a new exoplanet “twice the size of Earth,” reports Science Daily.

The newfound planet orbits on old and bright star known as Wolf 503 and has been given the name Wolf 503b.

Peterson made the incredible discovery soon after starting her graduate studies at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets of the Université de Montréal in Canada, notes Outer Places.

And, as she herself points out, everything came together quite smoothly.

“The discovery and confirmation of this new exoplanet was very rapid, thanks to the collaboration that I and my advisor, Björn Benneke, are a part of,” Peterson said in a statement.

Together with Benneke, Peterson looked through data from NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, specifically everything gathered during the spacecraft’s 17th observational campaign, and used the tried-and-true transiting method to spot any potential exoplanets.

As the Inquisitr previously reported, the transiting method involves searching for tiny dips in the brightness of a star, caused by an orbiting planet as it passes in front of it.

“In May, when the latest release of Kepler K2 data came in, we quickly ran a program that allowed us to find as many interesting candidate exoplanets as possible. Wolf 503b was one of them,” said Peterson.

Wolf 503b and its parent star are found a mere 145 light-years away from Earth, in the Virgo constellation, and make a very interesting pair.

For one thing, the exoplanet circles its star in a very tight orbit and sits about 10 times closer to Wolf 503 than Mercury is to the sun. At the same time, Wolf 503b has a radius of 2.03 times that of Earth, which places the exoplanet right near the Fulton gap — a marker that divides all the known Kepler planets into super-Earths and sub-Neptunes based on their size.

First described in a study published last year in the Astronomical Journal, the Fulton gap refers to a shortage of Kepler exoplanets ranging between 1.5 and two times the size of Earth. The study argues that most of the small planets discovered by Kepler and which orbit very close to their stars are either super-Earths, with a radius smaller than 1.5 times that of our planet, or sub-Neptunes, with two to three times the radius of Earth.

“Since there is nothing like them in our solar system, astronomers wonder whether these planets are small and rocky ‘super-Earths’ or gaseous mini-versions of Neptune,” explains Science Daily, citing the Université de Montréal.

Studying Wolf 503b will help scientists figure out more this peculiar class of exoplanets.

“It provides a key opportunity to better understand the origin of this radius gap as well as the nature of the intriguing populations of ‘super-Earths’ and ‘sub-Neptunes’ as a whole,” said Benneke.

Meanwhile, Wolf 503 is what astronomers call an “orange dwarf” — a star slightly bigger than our sun, with a mass 0.45 to 0.8 times larger, and slightly less luminous. A more famous example of an orange dwarf star is Alpha Centauri B, one of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system sitting right on our cosmic doorstep and which could be friendly to life, as recently reported by the Inquisitr.

Unlike Alpha Centauri B, which is only a bit older than the sun, Wolf 503 is about twice as old. Its brightness and close proximity to our planet makes it a perfect study candidate for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, report the sources.

Once is launches in 2021, the telescope could find out more about the atmospheric composition of Wolf 503b by scoping out its parent star with a technique called transit spectroscopy. This will show whether the exoplanet has hydrogen or water molecules in its atmosphere.

“Wolf 503b is one of the only planets with a radius near the gap that has a star that is bright enough to be amenable to more detailed study that will better constrain its true nature,” said Benneke.

The discovery of Wolf 503b, along with everything we’ve learned about the exoplanet so far, is detailed in a paper available on the pre-print server arXiv.