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Astronomers make huge exoplanet discovery haul in record time

If we ever discover life in outer space, it may be found on an Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star. Exoplanets have become a focus for many astronomers since they were first discovered three decades ago. But these distant planets aren’t just studied as potential alien home planets — they also help astronomers better understand the features of the universe. To date, some 3,796 have been identified after a recent haul added 80 planetary candidates to the list.

In a paper published online this week in The Astronomical Journal, an international group of scientists reported that dozens of planetary candidates have been identified by measuring light fluctuations using K2, the mission that followed up NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope.

Among the nearly 80 candidates is a planet that orbits the star HD 73344, which qualifies as the brightest host star ever identified by K2. According to data analyzed by the astronomers, the planetary candidate orbits HD 73344 every 15 days. By measuring the amount of light the planet blocks while passing in front of the star, astronomers estimate that the planet is two and a half times the size of Earth, with 10 times more mass. Temperature on the planet hovers around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, comparable to lava erupting from a volcano.

At about 114 light years from us, the planet is relatively close in cosmic terms. And though life as we know it couldn’t exist on its boiling surface, scientists believe the planet could be a good candidate to study exoplanet characteristics, such as atmospheric composition.

“We think it would probably be more like a smaller, hotter version of Uranus or Neptune,” said Ian Crossfield, an assistant professor of physics at  Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led the study.

Eighty planetary candidates is an impressive haul in its own right, but the study is additionally notable for the speed it took to identify the candidates. By running raw data from the K2 mission through existing tools developed by researchers at MIT, the astronomers were able to sift through “lightcurves,” graphs that depict light intensity, from 50,000 stars. Where a typical analysis like this could take months or a year, the recent report was completed in a matter of weeks.

Crossfield referred to the recent study as a “dress rehearsal” for astronomers set to receive data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).

“When the TESS data come down, there’ll be a few months before all of the stars that TESS looked at for that month ‘set’ for the year,” Crossfield said. “If we get candidates out quickly to the community, everyone can start immediately observing systems discovered by TESS, and doing a lot of great planetary science. So this [analysis] was really a dress rehearsal for TESS.”

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