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  • June 25, 2020

Discovering an exoplanet the size of Neptune

  • Space for Life
Artist’s representation of the planet (foreground) and its star (background). Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.
Artist’s representation of the planet (foreground) and its star (background). Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.
  • Artist’s representation of the planet (foreground) and its star (background). Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre.
  • Jonathan Gagné

Astrophysicists detect a planet around the young star AU Microscopii

AU Mic b, an exoplanet the size of Neptune has been discovered around the young star AU Microscopii (AU Mic), thanks in part to the work of Jonathan Gagné, a former iREx Banting postdoctoral researcher who is now a scientific advisor at the Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Astrophysicists have been searching for exoplanets in this system, a unique laboratory for studying planetary formation, for more than a decade. The breakthrough, announced in the scientific journal Nature, was made possible in part by NASA's TESS and Spitzer space telescopes.

A unique laboratory

AU Mic provides a unique laboratory to determine how exoplanets and their atmospheres form, and how they interact with the disc of debris and gas from which they are born. Scientists are excited about their latest discovery, as very few systems like AU Mic are known. Not only is the detection of exoplanets difficult in these systems, but they are also very rare because a system’s period of planetary formation is relatively short compared to the life of a star.

Many surprises undoubtedly still hide within AU Mic’s system, the iREX researchers believe. Will further observations of the system with TESS confirm the existence of other planets? Is the atmosphere of the planet outgassing because of the strong stellar activity? How does this system compare to others of the same age? Those are all questions for future study.

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