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What's the Latest Exoplanet News?

Exoplanets
Render of Exoplanet (Image: Getty Images)

For most of us the beginning of 2021 has involved a lot of headlines about the coronavirus, vaccine distribution, and some tense political news. For astronomers it’s also included tons of new information from this winter’s American Astronomical Society conference! What's the latest exoplanet news?

The annual American Astronomical Society conference is a gathering allows thousands of scientists and astronomers to kick off the year with big news about the cosmos. Here topics range from technology used on Earth to the most distant light observable. This week long occasion gives the astronomy community much to talk about for a long time to follow. While there were many amazing discoveries this year, one category yielded some pretty interesting news headlines that caught our eye. That’s right, we’re talking about exoplanets exoplanets exoplanets! 

Here are some the greatest hits. 

Exoplanets come in all sizes and ages. Finding some old exoplanets serves as more than just inventory of the cosmos. These discoveries also help scientists better understand the variables needed for planets to form, how solar systems get created, and potentially even what it takes for life to exist. When we get news of old exopplanets it gives some folks the opportunity to ponder what the history of such an aged world could be. Could this have been a place where life could have formed once upon a time ages ago? How did this exoplanet impact the rest of the solar system formation? How do these bodies interact with all the other stuff in that star system?

These discoveries also help us ponder, learn more, and ask more questions about the time and processes involved in forming our own planets and star systems. Okay, so what did this year’s conference yield? Some pretty exciting news! Scientists shared news about a planetary system that dates back about 10 billion years - give or take 3 billion - meaning it’s age could range up to 13 billion years old, nearly the age of our galaxy itself! This discovery, like many others in science, now opens up many more questions to be answered! Looks like there’s going to be a lot more work for future generations of astronomers. 

Another big item was an update on a potential exoplanet detected by the Kepler observatory in 2009. One set of eyes is great, but another set can often help fine tune our understanding of what we’re seeing. The initial work done by the Kepler team in 2009 now has a little more science to lean on. Now the TESS space telescope has helped decode the complicated signal from its triple star system to reveal a planet that remained hidden for over a decade. These updates and detailed enhancement of our knowledge is how we verify and further understand our own universe. 

Discovering an exoplanet is just one step in understanding it. A lot of work goes into describing their properties too. Astronomers are great at naming things like the "Very Large Telescope” or the “Extremely Large Telescope” so we have to give them props for a creative name given to a new program: the Giant Outer Transiting Exoplanet Mass survey, also known as GOT ‘EM! Way to go astronomers! This survey will help us better understand the mass and density of the few known examples of gas giants on distant orbits and in turn will help us understand how these worlds compare to the giant planets in our own solar system. GOT 'EM. Got that? 

Information was also exchanged about the concept of planets with atmospheres that have been stripped by their host star. This gives astronomers something to think about when they discover new terrestrial worlds. Did they form that way or are they the remnant of a larger more gaseous body that had its atmosphere stripped away over billions of years? 

Remarkably, all this news is from just one day! To learn more check out the American Astronomical Society’s web page aas.org. Things may seem a little rough down here, but as always the astronomy community is here for us with many reasons to keep looking up.