The work of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is simply surreal. Imagine traveling a thousand years back in time and then explaining to someone how future scientists will have a machine that detects alien worlds floating at distances beyond human imagination.
Since 2018, this instrument has found literally thousands of exoplanets in space. We have an eye shaped like a rugby ball, another that looks like it’s covered in lava oceans, and even a sphere that’s raining glass — sideways.
On Wednesday, international scientists announced that such a foreign empire, dutifully hunted by TESS, may be covered in a blanket of elixir of life: water.
I’m not sure about you, but I’m having flashbacks to that scene in Interstellar where Cooper lands on a world with waves the size of skyscrapers.
This possible “ocean world,” according to the team’s study, published this month in The Astronomical Journal, lives about 100 light-years away from Earth and orbits a binary star system nestled in the constellation Draco. Named TOI-1452 b, it is believed to be about 70% larger than our planet, about five times as massive, orbits to the rhythm of seven Earth days, and has a temperature neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water on the surface.
But the kicker is that the density appears to be consistent with having an incredibly deep ocean — either that, or it’s a huge rock with little to no atmosphere or possibly an atmosphere built with hydrogen and helium, according to NASA.
“TOI-1452 b is one of the best ocean planet candidates we’ve found to date,” Charles Cadieux, the study’s lead author, doctoral student at the University of Montreal and member of the university’s Institute for Exoplanet Research, said in a press release Wednesday. “Its radius and mass suggest a much lower density than what you would expect from a planet essentially composed of metal and rock, such as Earth.”
If this hypothesis is correct — that TOI-1452 b is capable of fulfilling Poseidon’s dreams — it would be comparable to some places in our own solar system. Enceladus, Saturn’s bright and icy moon, is said to harbor a global subterranean saltwater ocean beneath an icy shield. And Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s glowing companions and the largest moon in our cosmic environment, has its own frozen watery expanse.
Sounds like a job for the Webb Space Telescope
While discoveries of exoplanets have been pouring in in recent years, there’s an extra level of excitement when scientists find one today.
That’s because we now have the James Webb Space Telescope, another incredible machine standing a million miles from Earth, decoding secrets of the universe — cosmic data hidden under the guise of infrared light.
“And, lucky enough,” the TOI-1452 b press release states, “it’s in an area of the sky that the telescope can observe year-round.”
“Our observations with the Webb telescope will be essential to better understand TOI-1452 b,” René Doyon, director of the University of Montreal’s iREx, author of the recent study and member of the team behind one of the key pieces of equipment of the JWST, said in the issue. “As soon as we can, we’ll book time on Webb to observe this strange and wonderful world.”
With JWST, Doyon and fellow researchers hope to better study this exoplanet’s atmosphere and test whether it really is an amazing world of liquid water. According to the team, it is one of the few known temperate planets to display features similar to an ocean planet. That’s why it’s so tempting to muse on it.
Moreover, the reason TOI-1452 b is expected to have such a cold climate is that the star it orbits in the binary system is much smaller than our sun and does not stray at far from the planet of interest. This ball of gas is located at a distance from its star partner equal to about two and a half times the distance between the Sun and Pluto, the study authors say.
And fascinatingly, this whole situation was complex enough that TESS needed some backup to write the story of TOI-1452 b. Researchers had to call on a few other high-tech tools—which would also blow the minds of our hypothetical ancient public—like the Observatoire du Mont-Megantic’s PESTO camera. That device specializes in the red part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“The OMM played a critical role in confirming the nature of this signal and estimating the planet’s radius,” Cadieux said. “This was not a routine check. We had to make sure that the signal detected by TESS was really caused by an exoplanet orbiting TOI-1452, the larger of the two stars in that binary star system.”
JWST, may this (water) world be your oyster.