EAST LANSING — After more than a year of working investigating stars, a Michigan State University professor has helped NASA confirm the existence of a new planet about 100 light-years away that could be capable of supporting life.
The newly confirmed planet, TOI-700e, is the third TOI-700 discovered in the solar system by Joey Rodriguez, assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and a team of researchers working with the NASA Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, an astronaut. – A telescope that monitors millions of stars and searches for planets that pass in front of the stars.
The team announced the discovery Tuesday at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. In 2020, Rodriguez and his team confirmed for the first time the existence of the TOI-700 solar system and at that time they confirmed the existence of three planets – TOI-700b, TOI-700c and TOI-700d. But Rodriguez said there is some evidence that a fourth planet might exist.
After another year of observing and studying the star TOI-700, researchers were able to confirm TOI-700e, the fourth known planet in the solar system. Because of TOI-700e’s location within the star’s habitable zone, Rodriguez and his team believe the newly discovered planet could be capable of supporting life.
“We don’t know much about the planet,” Rodriguez said Friday. “We know how big it is. We know how far it is from the star. We know how big it is. It’s at a distance where the star’s energy … has to be at the temperature of liquid water.”
He said liquid water is a critical component necessary for the continuation of life on a planet, and TOI-700e is located as close to a solar system star as liquid water would be possible.
One way scientists can confirm their suspicions that a planet could indeed sustain life is by studying the planet’s atmosphere and pressure and looking for biological signs, such as oxygen or other molecules that could confirm conditions on the planet that allow life.
It’s an issue that Rodriguez expects will be debated for decades. Even if a biological signature is identified in the planet’s atmosphere, which is difficult to pin down, some chemical signatures could be explained by non-biological sources, according to the press release.
“We need to look for evidence of the right biology on this planet (to conclude that it can sustain life),” Rodriguez said.
The researchers also believe that TOI-700d could be able to sustain life because it also orbits within the star’s habitable zone. Rodriguez compared the newly discovered planets to Earth and Venus — TOI-700d sits as close to its star as Earth is to the sun, and TOI-700e sits similar to where Venus sits at the edge of the habitable zone.
There are no indications that the solar system is home to any other planets yet to be discovered, but Rodriguez did not rule out the possibility as researchers continue to study the TOI-700 system.
“This is one of the few systems with multiple, minor planets and habitable zones that we know about,” Emily Gilbert, a postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, who leads the project, said in a press release. . “This makes the TOI-700 system an exciting opportunity for additional follow-up.”
Neither humans nor satellites will be traveling anywhere near the new planet anytime soon. Rodriguez said the technology needed for a 100-light-year journey does not yet exist, but that will not stop him and the team of researchers from continuing to study the solar system and the planets they discovered.
Rodriguez, who has been doing this work for 12 years, hopes there are more planets to find.
“There’s a lot of space in parameters and places where planets can exist,” he said. “We will probably find more, but it will be much more difficult to discover.”