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Neptune-Sized Exoplanet May Have a “Substantial Atmosphere”

A recently discovered Neptune-like exoplanet has been described as possibly having a “substantial atmosphere”. Named TOI-1231 b, the planet is located about 90 light-years away from Earth. It is quite similar to our Solar System’s Neptune planet in regards to its size as well as being a gaseous world with possibly a rich atmosphere.

An international team of astronomers that was led by Dr. Jennifer Burt, who is an exoplanet researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and Professor Diana Dragomir, who is an exoplanet researcher at the University of New Mexico, discovered TOI-1231 b when they were analyzing data collected from TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). Then on June 3rd, the team’s discovery of TOI-1231 b was entered into NASA’s Exoplanet Archive.

TOI-1231 b is over 3.5 times larger than Earth and 15.4 times our mass. While it has a surface temperature of about 134 degrees Fahrenheit (57 degrees Celsius), it is in fact one of the “coolest” exoplanets found thus far, suggesting that it could have a very substantial atmosphere.

(Not TOI-1231 b)

The planet travels around a red-dwarf star and completes a full orbit in just 24.2 days. Even though it orbits its host star at a pretty close range (a distance of 0.1288 AU), it is still considered to be a cooler planet (its star is also considered to be somewhat cool). Unfortunately, there couldn’t be any life on the planet because of its size; however, there may be a lot to learn about its atmosphere.

Scientists are hopeful that the Hubble Space Telescope and the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to capture evidence of starlight shining through the exoplanet’s atmosphere. The molecules in the atmosphere absorb the light which then reveals dark lines that will hopefully tell scientists which gases are present on TOI-1231 b. Additionally, when the planet passes by its host star, the transiting time takes almost 3.5 hours which is great news for studying the starlight that will shine through the atmosphere.

(Not TOI-1231 b)

There is a possibility that the telescopes could see clouds in the atmosphere of TOI-1231 b. And if the clouds do contain water, hydrogen atoms may be escaping the atmosphere and leaving a trail behind the planet as it quickly moves away. While this is exciting, we’ll have to wait and see what the telescopes detect.

An artist’s impression of TOI-1231 b can be seen here.