Wolf 503b is too Close to its Star

Wolf 503b is too Close to its Star

Scientists found an exoplanet twice as big as Earth in the Virgo Constellation which orbits incredibly close to its host star.

The desire to find the habitable celestial body anywhere else (other than the Earth) in the universe has urged astronomers to go beyond their limits. The emergence of advanced telescopes like the Hubble and the Kepler Space Telescope has revolutionized the field of space exploration. Kepler has single-handedly discovered more than 2,500 confirmed exoplanets. Similarly, it found more than 5,000 possible candidates that may belong to the category of exoplanets. Recently, it added another outstanding achievement in its list of discoveries by observing an exoplanet at a distance of 145 light years from the Earth.

An international team of researchers used the data from the Kepler Space Telescope of NASA to reveal that the exoplanet, called Wolf 503b, lies in the Virgo constellation and is twice as big as our planet. The team comprising on scientists from the United States, Germany, and Canada figured out that it takes only 6 days for the exoplanet to orbit its host star. This means that it is incredibly close to its parent (According to an estimate, it is 10 times closer than Mercury is to Sun). Merrin Peterson, a Graduate Student at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets (iREx) of the Université de Montréal (UdeM) who is also the Lead Author of this study, explained their findings in the following words:

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. 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. 

Talking about the working mechanism, she mentioned that they began by obtaining a spectrum of the host star. They found that the star under observation was an old ‘Orange Dwarf’ which is twice as old as our Sun and is a bit less luminous. They were also able to precisely determine the radii of both the star and its orbiting partner, in this phase. They used the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility for this purpose. Once all of this was done, they were now ready to characterize whether the orbiting companion was an exoplanet or not.

In order to make certain deductions, the researching team collected the data of adaptive optics measurements from the Palomar Observatory. In addition to that, they also analyzed the archival data to confirm that there was neither a transiting planet around the star nor were there any binary stars in the background. For sake of their experiment, the researchers used a program which identifies distinct, periodic dips that are visible in the light curve of a star when a celestial object passes in front of it. The findings showed that there are two exciting things about this exoplanet.

The first interesting thing about Wolf 503b is its size. All the data gathered by the Kepler Space Telescope has shown that the size of most of the planets in our galaxy lies between the size of Earth and Neptune. Knowing that a recent research showed that there are only a few planets that are 1.5 to 2 times bigger than Earth. According to that study, this range (the Fulton gap) is generally used to categorize planets into two types. Björn Benneke, a member of iREx and CRAQ who also serves as a Professor at the UdeM, talked about that and said,

“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. 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.”

The closeness of the Wolf 503b to its host star is the second reason of interest about this exoplanet. This makes it extremely bright and places it among the primary targets of the James Webb Space Telescope. Transit Spectroscopy will be used to study the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere. It will help researchers to conclude whether it resembles Earth or Neptune. It will not be a surprise if it turns out to be completely different from the planets of our solar system. Peterson showed great intent about further exploration by saying,

“By investigating the nature of Wolf 503b, we’ll understand more about the structure of planets near the radius gap and more generally about the diversity of exoplanets present in our galaxy. I look forward to learning more about it.”  

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