According to research conducted by a team of committed scientists, a new, pint-sized planet has been found more than five hundred light years from earth! And better yet,a team of Australian researchers played a critical role in locating the planet.
The planet was given the uninspiring name ‘HATS-6b’ as it was discovered by the HAT South team. This is a group of diverse international scientists from Canberra’s Australian National University, Princeton and the Max Planck Institute, as well as an amateur Aussie astronomer known as TG Tan. The discovery of the small planet will likely inform our understanding of the building blocks of the universe.
ANU Research School of Astronomy’s George Zhou described the planet to the ABC as being comparable in size to the planet Jupiter and ideally located at a safe distance from a nearby star.
“That means this is a really big planet… orbiting a relatively small star,” he explained. “It’s quite hard to form these big planets around small stars. But our theories can’t explain how this happened.”
The process of discovery has also proved to be a fascinating story, particularly given the global to track the planet. Mr Zhou explained how the team came to discover this exciting planet.
“We used these telescopes to monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars in the night sky,” Mr. Zhou said. “When a planet passes in front of a star, from our perspective, what we see is that one of the stars will dip in the brightness that we observe, indicating that there’s a planet transiting in front of it. This is the transit technique that we’re using to discover these planets, and that’s how HATS-6b was discovered.”
And what role did the mysterious Perth-based astronomer TG Tan play in the epic discovery?
“We’ve identified something like 1,000 planet candidates – what we think might be transiting planets,” Mr. Zhou explained to the ABC. “It’s a stretch for our resources to try to follow up these 1,000 potential planet candidates, so we enlist the help of amateur astronomers. TG monitored the transit of HATS-6b for us, and actually confirmed that it’s really a planet around another a star. His contributions were significant for this discovery.”
The team published a paper in the Astronomical Journal. Co-author Mr. Zhou said the research could have a profound impact on all human life.
“Of course one of the biggest questions is whether there’s life out there,” he posited. “By finding planets around other stars, we’re going toward that direction. We’re trying to find places where potentially there might be other forms of life, which are not coming from Earth. Hopefully, this kind of research will lead us towards that… By looking for planets around small stars we’re find[ing] a different way of identifying planets that might host life.”
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