Science Gazette

A unique crew discovers a massive planet hiding in plain sight


It is substantially closer to Earth than other gas giants.

A group of eagle-eyed citizen scientists and an astronomer have identified a massive gas planet hidden from vision by standard stargazing gear.

A UC Riverside astronomer and a group of eagle-eyed citizen scientists have found a massive gas planet that was previously concealed from observation by standard stargazing equipment.

TOI-2180 b is roughly three times the mass of Jupiter, although it has the same diameter. It is also thought to hold 105 times the mass of Earth in elements heavier than helium and hydrogen, according to researchers. Nothing else in our solar system compares.

Details of the discovery were published in the Astronomical Journal and discussed during a virtual press event hosted by the American Astronomical Society on Jan. 13.

“TOI-2180 b is such an exciting planet to have discovered,” said University of California, Riverside astronomer Paul Dalba, who assisted in the confirmation of the planet’s existence. “It fulfills the trinity of 1) a several-hundred-day orbit, 2) proximity to Earth (379 lightyears is considered near for an exoplanet), and 3) our ability to view it pass in front of its star. It is very unusual for astronomers to find a planet that fulfills all three criteria.”

Dalba also said that the planet is unique in that it takes 261 days to orbit its star, which is a considerable period compared to many other known gas giants beyond our solar system. Because of its close closeness to Earth and the brightness of the star it circles, scientists are expected to learn more about it.

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NASA’s TESS spacecraft looks at one section of the sky for a month before moving on to find exoplanets, which orbit stars other than our sun. It’s looking for brightness dips that happen when a planet passes in front of a star.

“We need three ‘dips’ or transits before we feel we’ve located a planet,” Dalba said. A jittery telescope or a star masquerading as a planet might create a single transit event. TESS isn’t focused on these specific transportation incidents for these reasons. A tiny group of citizen scientists, on the other hand, is.

Tom Jacobs, a group member and retired U.S. navy officer, witnessed light fade from the TOI-2180 star once while looking through TESS data. Dalba, who specializes in researching planets that take a long time to circle their stars, was informed by his colleagues.

Dalba and his colleagues used the Automated Planet Finder Telescope at the Lick Observatory to measure the planet’s gravitational pull on the star, which enabled them to determine TOI-2180 b’s mass and estimate a range of orbital possibilities.

Dalba coordinated a campaign employing 14 separate telescopes across three continents in the northern hemisphere in the hopes of seeing a second transit occurrence. The operation yielded 20,000 photos of the TOI-2180 star over the period of 11 days in August 2021, yet none of them reliably discovered the planet.

The effort did, however, lead TESS to predict that the planet would pass its star again in February, when they aim to conduct a follow-up examination. The National Science Foundation’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellowship Program provided funding for Dalba’s study.

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The citizen planet hunters organization searches for single transit occurrences using publicly accessible data from NASA spacecraft such as TESS. While professional astronomers use algorithms to scan large amounts of data automatically, the Visual Survey Group inspects telescope data by hand using a tool they designed.

“The work they put in is incredibly essential and amazing,” Dalba said, “since it’s difficult to create programming that can consistently recognize single transit events.” “This is one area where people continue to outperform code.”

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