17-Year-Old NASA Intern Helped Discover Twin-Starred 'Tatooine' Planet

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith

On January 6, NASA announced that it had detected an Earth-sized planet, TOI 700 d, 100 light-years away from Earth that could be capable of hosting life. The same mission also led to the discovery of a rare planet with twin suns courtesy of a 17-year-old intern.

As CNN reports, high school student Wolf Cukier was combing through data collected by NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, when he noticed something strange about one binary star system. The system TOI 1338 consists of two stars that orbit each other once every 15 days. When the smaller of the two stars passes across the larger one, it's known as a stellar eclipse. But one signal that had been flagged as a stellar eclipse wasn't an eclipse at all; just three days into his internship at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Cukier had found a planet orbiting the two stars.

The planet, since dubbed TOI 1338 b, is like a real-life version of Luke Skywalker's home planet Tatooine from the Star Wars movies. It's located roughly 1300 light-years away in the Pictor constellation and is somewhere between Neptune and Saturn in size. Twin-starred planets are rare, and this marks this first one detected through NASA's planet-hunting TESS mission.

TESS launched in 2018 with the goal of finding new planets outside our own solar system. Planets are typically discovered by recording stars over time and looking for dips in their brightness that indicate passing planets. This system becomes complicated when dealing with binary star systems, as dips in light caused by a planet in transit can get confused with an eclipsing star and vice versa. Without Cukier's keen eye, this latest discovery may have gone undetected.

It may have the same number of stars as Tatooine, but the similarities TOI 1338 b shares with the planet from Star Wars end there. So far, TOI 700 d is the only planet discovered by TESS that has a chance of being habitable.

[h/t CNN]

Stardust Created 7 Billion Years Ago Is the Oldest Stuff on Earth

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Between 5 and 7 billion years ago, a dying star shot an explosion of particles through space. Some of that stardust ended up in a meteorite that landed in Murchison, Australia, in 1969. And according to new research, it's officially the oldest known solid material on Earth.

For the new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 30 years after the research began, scientists pulverized fragments of the meteorite to determine its age. The resulting paste-like substance reportedly smelled like "rotten peanut butter." The strange aroma "comes from byproducts of the breakdown of the abiotic organic molecules—molecules that didn't form from life—in the Murchison meteorite," lead author Philipp R. Heck, a curator at Chicago's Field Museum, tells Mental Floss.

Heck used acid to further break down the rock and isolate the grains of stardust, which are smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. To date the particles, the team measured neon isotopes that formed when cosmic rays hit the solid matter making up the stardust. The older the stardust is, the more cosmic rays it has been exposed to, so the amount of neon isotopes it contains can be used to estimate its age. Heck compares the method to collecting water in a bucket to determine how long it's been raining.

The team found that the meteorite contained particles older than 5.5 billion years and possibly as old as 7 billion years. The Earth has only been around for 4.5 billion years, and the sun for 4.6 billion. The formation of this super-old stardust is believed to have occurred during an "astral baby boom," according to a statement released by the Field Museum, in which an uptick in stellar activity literally created the matter that shapes the world we know today.

When the grains formed, "most stars that we see tonight in the sky didn’t exist," Heck says. "The bright stars that would have been shining through our galaxy were the previous generation of stars, our parent stars. [They] formed the elements that later became fuel and ingredients for the solar system, Earth, and us. These stars formed the material that we are made out of."

While the grains in the Murchison meteorite are the oldest solid material on the planet, many of the gases on Earth are much older. Some of the hydrogen in your body, for example, may have originated with the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

Earth-Sized, Potentially Habitable Planet Discovered 100 Light-Years Away

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Less than two years after starting its mission, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, or TESS, has found what may be its first habitable planet, CNN reports.

The body orbits the cool M-dwarf star TOI 700 in the Dorado constellation 100 light-years away from Earth. According to NASA, the planet, dubbed TOI 700 d, is about 20 percent larger than our own and it sits at just the right distance from its sun to support liquid water. It's one of three planets in the solar system, the others likely being an Earth-sized rocky planet and a gas planet 2.6 times the size of Earth. TOI 700 d is believed to be tidally locked, meaning only one half faces the sun at all times, and orbits there last approximately 37 Earth days.

NASA launched TESS in April 2018 with the goal of discovering planets outside our solar system, including those with the potential to host life. The satellite was built to locate Earth-sized planets orbiting neighboring stars, but this recent discovery almost went undetected. The star TOI 700 was initially thought to be as hot as our own sun, which would have made TOI 700 d uninhabitable. Upon closer inspection, researchers noticed the star was actually relatively cool and small, potentially placing TOI 700 d in the Goldilocks zone for nurturing life.

After TESS's finding was confirmed using the infrared technology of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers further studied the planet by modeling its potential atmosphere and surface conditions. These computer models can give astronomers an idea of just how hospitable TOI 700 d is before future missions, such as NASA's James Webb Space Telescope launching in 2021, can collect more evidence.

TOI 700 d may be one of the closest known habitable planets to Earth, but that doesn't mean humans will be visiting it anytime soon. To put the 100 light-year distance into perspective, Mars is less than half a light-year away from Earth, and it can take seven months to get there.

[h/t CNN]

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