USQ researchers make ground-breaking discovery
For more than a decade, astronomers have searched for planets orbiting AU Microscopii (AU Mic), a young nearby star still surrounded by a disk of debris left over from its formation.
Now scientists, including researchers from the University of Southern Queensland, have discovered a planet about as large as Neptune that circles the star in just over a week.
The new planet, AU Mic b, was confirmed using data from NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
MINERVA-Australis at the University of Southern Queensland's Mount Kent Observatory is the only Southern Hemisphere site fully dedicated TESS support.
The AU Mic system is centred on cool red dwarf star, which is about 20 to 30 million years old - a stellar infant compared to the Sun, which is at least 150 times older.
When a planet crosses in front of its star from our perspective, an event called a transit, it causes a distinct dip in the star's brightness. TESS monitors large swathes of the sky for 27 days at a time, watching thousands of stars at once, looking for these tiny dips.
When TESS identifies a star with a potential planet, scientists across the globe, including a team of astronomers based in Toowoomba, Australia, leap into action.
Those astronomers point their own telescopes, taking special measurements to determine if it is "wobbling" back and forth in space.
Once a planet is confirmed, these observations can also help scientists learn more about that alien world.
"We're proud that the University of Southern Queensland is an important member of a global team hunting for exoplanets," astrophysicist Professor Jonti Horner said.
"From Mount Kent in Queensland's Darling Downs, astronomers are working with institutes around the world to confirm the existence of planets and learn more about them."
AU Mic has long intrigued astronomers as a possible home for planets thanks to its proximity, youth and bright debris disk. It is a nearby 'laboratory' for understanding the formation and evolution of stars and planets that will be studied for decades to come.
"In fact, you can expect more University of Southern Queensland research papers in the coming weeks stemming from this fascinating system," Professor Horner said.