Astronomers identify nearly 80 exoplanets in record time

Washington: Scientists have discovered nearly 80 new planetary candidates, amid some 50,000 stars, in a record two weeks after the data from the K2 mission’s — the follow-up mission to NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope — was available.

The discovery was based on the analysis of data from K2’s 16th and 17th observing campaigns, known as C16 and C17.

It typically takes several months to a year for scientists to analyse graphs of light intensity called “lightcurves” from the tens of thousands of stars to find exoplanet candidates.

Using existing tools, the researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identified the planetary candidates in just two weeks.

The rapid search through “lightcurves” from each of the 50,000 stars showed 30 “highest-quality” planet candidates whose periodic signatures are especially likely to be caused by transiting planets, 48 more ambiguous events that may be either planets or false positives, 164 eclipsing binaries, and 231 other regularly periodic variable sources, the team reported in the paper published in The Astronomical Journal.

Such a fast planet-search enables astronomers to follow up with ground-based telescopes much sooner than they otherwise would, giving them a chance to catch a glimpse of planetary candidates before the Earth passes by that particular patch of sky on its way around the sun, said Ian Crossfield, Assistant Professor at MIT.

Such speed will also be a necessity when scientists start receiving data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) which is designed to monitor nearby stars in 30-day swaths and will ultimately cover nearly the entire sky.

Further, the scientists also reported the discovery of a likely planet that orbits the star HD 73344 which would be the brightest planet host ever discovered by the K2 mission.

The brightness of this star, combined with the speed with which its planetary candidate was identified, can help astronomers quickly zero in on even more specific features of this system, Crossfield said.

“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,” he added.