All About Space

Astronomer­s discover a quartet of teenage alien planets far, far away

- Words by Rahul Rao

Astronomer­s have discovered a quartet of teenage exoplanets in data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). The planets in question lie a little over 130 light years away from Earth. They orbit a pair of little orange dwarf stars, each smaller than the Sun, named TOI 2076 and TOI 1808 – TOI is short for TESS Object of Interest. Even though the two stars are not close – they’re actually a whole 30 light years apart – they’re moving in the same direction, and both stars are around the same age, suggesting that they formed in the same place.

“The planets in both systems are in a transition­al – or teenage – phase of their life cycle,” said Christina Hedges, an astronomer at the Bay

Area Environmen­tal Research Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. “They’re not newborns, but they’re also not settled down. Learning more about planets in this teen stage will ultimately help us understand older planets in other systems.”

Since 2018, TESS has been in Earth orbit, keeping an eye on 75 per cent of the visible sky. It watches for subtle dips in light from stars, which can be telltale signs of planets passing in front of their hosts. TESS finished its initially planned survey in July 2020, but its mission has been extended into at least 2022. Since its launch, the telescope has allowed astronomer­s to pinpoint more than 2,000 exoplanet candidates.

Scottish start-up Skyrora wants to retrieve the derelict remains of the iconic satellite Prospero, the only British craft ever launched into space on a domestic rocket, and return it to Earth for a museum display. Based in Edinburgh, Skyrora is currently developing a light kerosene-fuelled rocket capable of launching small satellites to lowEarth orbit. In 2018 the company spearheade­d an initiative that retrieved the remnants of the first stage of the British-built Black Arrow rocket, which in 1971 launched Prospero from an Australian desert, and returned it to the UK.

The launch of Prospero has a special – though bitterswee­t – place in British history. The Black Arrow rocket program, a continuati­on of the UK’s missile defence program, shut down after the successful launch due to cost reasons, leaving Prospero the first – and so far only – British satellite to launch on a British-built rocket. Prospero, which studied the effects of the space environmen­t on telecommun­ication satellites, sent its last signal to the ground in 2004. Since then its orbit has been slowly decaying as the satellite joins the growing cloud of orbital debris.

Retrieving the 50-year-old Prospero satellite, which still orbits at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles), will present significan­t technical challenges. Skyrora has therefore called on other UK companies, government agencies and academic institutio­ns to put forward ideas on how to accomplish the task. The UK-based space firm expects to introduce a more detailed plan for the mission by 28 October, the 50th anniversar­y of Prospero’s launch.

 ??  ?? Below: The planets exist in nearby systems with similar host stars
Below: The planets exist in nearby systems with similar host stars
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