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The search for other worlds

The search for other worlds reveals new planets which could sustain life

Faith Hawthorn, PhD Student Physics, Warwick

The search for life outside our own planet has long fascinated scientists and armchair astronomers alike. It has captured the imagination of film-makers and television producers, and become a timeless source of wonder across the globe. Yet, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence of extraterrestrial life.  

However, some distant planets do exist with temperatures and conditions that could support life. Exoplanets, planets outside our solar system orbiting a star, have been the subject of much academic research in recent years. In fact, in the last 30 years, more than 5,000 exoplanets have been discovered. These worlds come in different sizes, orbital periods, and travel around different types of stars. 

“We ran an initial algorithm searching for transits on a sample of 1.4 million stars. We whittled this down to just 85 systems that appear to host exoplanets that transit only twice in the dataset.” 

Some of these may have potentially habitable conditions - similar conditions to planet earth – which may be able to sustain life. In fact, new research led by PhD student Faith Hawthorn at The University of Warwick has revealed 85 candidate exoplanets that take between 20 and 700 days to orbit their host stars. 

Most known exoplanets have been discovered using the transit method. A transit occurs when a planet passes between a star and its observer. Detecting exoplanets from just two transits enabled the discovery of exoplanets at cooler temperatures. It allows researchers to find planets that are much cooler than can be found with traditional searches. 

Some of the potenetial exoplanets discovered (which are similar in size to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune) were in regions far enough away from their host stars to have the right temperatures to sustain life. The researchers focused their observations on exoplanets in this region (known as the ‘habitable zone') because they potentially have temperatures that could support the existence of life.  

At this stage the bodies still need to be confirmed as exoplanets, but researchers hope that this will be achieved with future observations. Of the 85 potential exoplanets detected in this study, 60 are brand new discoveries, while 25 have also been detected in NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) data by other research teams using different search techniques. 

Faith Hawthorn commented: “We ran an initial algorithm searching for transits on a sample of 1.4 million stars. We whittled this down to just 85 systems that appear to host exoplanets that transit only twice in the dataset.” 

Professor Daniel Bayliss, who was also involved in the research (pictured below with Faith), added: “It’s very exciting to find these planets, and to know that many of them may be in the right temperature zone to sustain life."

Faith Hawthorn and a team member

"The project was a real team effort and involved researchers at varying stages of their careers; it’s wonderful to see it come to light. We have also made our discoveries public so that astronomers across the globe can study these exoplanets in more detail. We hope this will drive further research into these fascinating exoplanets.” 

Faith added: “There is plenty of scope for continued research into these exoplanets - to learn more about their exact orbital periods, whether or not they have moons, and what exactly they are made of.” 

Read the full paper to learn moreLink opens in a new window.

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