Neptune-sized planet discovered orbiting young, nearby star

June 24, 2020

New research published today in Nature reports the discovery of a planet about the size of Neptune orbiting an especially young, nearby star. The planet, named AU Mic b, is orbiting AU Microscopii, which is relatively close to the Milky Way at 31.9 light years away. AU Microscopii is also "only" 20 or 30 million years old--at least 150 times younger than our Sun.

There are only two or three known stars that are both nearby and young, and scientists have been searching for planets orbiting them for at least a decade. This means the new finding creates a major opportunity for breakthrough research into solar system formation dynamics.

"One of the things we want to understand is, 'When do planets form, and what do they do in their early days?'" says Tom Barclay. He's an associate research scientist with UMBC's Center for Space Sciences and Technology, a partnership with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Because AU Mic b is so young, Barclay adds, "studying this planet, and hopefully others like it, can give us insight into how our own solar system formed."

Shining light on a new planet

Barclay primarily works on NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission. TESS observes the same section of sky for weeks at a time, collecting data about the brightness of stars in its field of view every two minutes. Thanks to this constant watchfulness, TESS can help detect planets by recording when a star's brightness temporarily dims. That can sometimes signal a planet crossing in front of the star, or "transiting."

"My role is to take the brightness data for the star and use that to understand what the size and other properties of the planet are," says Barclay, who is second author on the new paper. Peter Plavchan of George Mason University leads the project. "Dips in brightness tell you about the size of the planet, and measuring how regularly spaced the transits are tells us how long it takes the planet to go around the star," Barclay explains.

TESS detected two transits of AU Mic b, but the research team needed a third to "be confident that what we'd seen wasn't something else in the data trying to fool us," Barclay says. So they called on additional data collected by NASA's Spitzer satellite and ground-based instruments in Hawaii and Chile.

Barclay analyzed the combined information and was able to confirm that AU Mic b has a mass of no more than 58 Earths and completes an orbit of AU Microscopii every 8.5 days. An orbit that short indicates that the planet is extremely close to the star.

Discovery dominoes

Next, Barclay and his colleagues want to learn more about the atmosphere of the new planet. Because it only recently formed, "it may well be losing its atmosphere at a rate that we can see," Barclay says. "It might even appear somewhat teardrop-shaped, as the planet is moving and leaving some of its atmosphere behind. So we're going to go and look for that."

In addition to the rate of atmosphere loss, careful observations can also help determine what the planet's atmosphere is made of. Determining the atmosphere's components could help the team figure out where the planet formed, because certain substances can only exist at a known distance from the star.

Knowing where the planet formed would provide clues about how it had moved since it first came into being. And knowing that would get scientists closer to understanding more generally how planets form and migrate in a new solar system.

Planet migration puzzle

AU Mic b is likely primarily comprised of gases. "This star probably hasn't had time to form small, rocky planets yet," Barclay says. "It gives us a chance to get a picture of what might have happened before our own terrestrial planets like Earth and Venus formed."

But the work is not easy. "Understanding the migration of planets is a really difficult problem. One of the fun things and one of the most frustrating things about studying stars is that we can never go to them," Barclay says. "So this discovery is just one more puzzle piece in trying to understand what's going on."

University of Maryland Baltimore County

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to