NASA Discovers 10-Billion-Year-Old Super Earth

Astronomers surveying planets outside our Solar System have discovered a new exoplanet unlike anything else they’ve seen so far, providing new evidence that planets have been around a lot longer than we may have thought.

TOI 561-b is one of three planets discovered orbiting the TOI 561 star system, which was first explored by NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.

Now, a team of planetary astrophysicists working out of UC Riverside have concluded that despite being several times larger than Earth, TOI 561-b has roughly the same density as our planet, suggesting that it may be one of the oldest rocky planets, or ‘Super-Earths’, ever recorded.

A ‘Super-Earth’ is defined as a planet with a larger mass than our own Earth, but a smaller mass than either Uranus or Neptune. Planets labelled as ‘Super-Earths’ don’t necessarily have the Earth-like conditions that would support life or make them habitable, but they do provide fascinating insights into the life and formation of planets like our own.

A study of the planet published in The Astronomical Journal revealed that TOI 561-b takes just half a day to orbit its host star, in part due its proximity. The study estimates that the planet has a surface temperature of around 2,000 degrees, too hot to support life, but scientists haven’t ruled out the possibility that it may have done in the past.

But rather than its habitability, scientists are more interested in what TOI 561-b tells us about how planets were formed in the earliest stages of the universe. Lauren Weiss, a postdoctoral fellow and the study’s team lead, explained that the existence of this particular Super-Earth ‘shows that the universe has been forming rocky planets almost since its inception 14 billion years ago.’

TOI 561 is one of a rare group of stars called the ‘galactic thick disk’. Stars belonging to this group typically contain fewer of the chemical elements associated with other stars in the Milky Way, and are believed to be much older, forming around 10 billion years ago.

And while TOI 561-b may not be capable of supporting life, study member Stephen Kane believes that the planet’s existence shows that there are likely to be other similar, potentially habitable Super-Earths out there.

He said: ‘Though this particular planet is unlikely to be inhabited today, it may be a harbinger of a many rocky worlds yet to be discovered around our galaxy’s oldest stars.’

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