The job of NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite is simply surreal. Imagine traveling a thousand years back in time, then explaining to someone how future scientists will have a machine that detects alien worlds floating at distances beyond the capacity of human comprehension.
Since 2018, this space-borne instrument has literally found thousands of exoplanets. We have eyes on one shaped like a rugby ball, another that seems covered in lava oceans and even an orb that rains glass — sideways.
On Wednesday, international scientists announced that one such foreign realm, dutifully hunted by TESS, may be covered in a blanket of life’s elixir: water.
I’m not sure about you, but I’m getting 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 some 100 light-years away from Earth, orbiting within a binary star system nestled into the Draco constellation. Named TOI-1452 b, it is suspected to be about 70% larger than our planet, to be roughly five times as massive, to spin to the rhythm of seven Earth days and to have a temperature neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water to exist on its surface.
But the kicker is that its 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 potentially an atmosphere built with hydrogen and helium, according to NASA.
“TOI-1452 b is one of the best candidates for an ocean planet that we have found to date,” Charles Cadieux, lead author of the study, doctoral student at the University of Montreal and member of the university’s Institute for Research on Exoplanets, said Wednesday in a press release. “Its radius and mass suggest a much lower density than what one would expect for a planet that is basically made up of metal and rock, like Earth.”
If this hypothesis is correct — that TOI-1452 b is fit to befall the dreams of Poseidon — it would be similar to some places in our own solar system. Enceladus, Saturn’s bright and frigid moon, is thought to host a global subsurface saltwater ocean beneath an icy shield. And Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s own glowing companions and the largest moon in our cosmic neighborhood, boasts its own frozen watery expanse.
Sound like a job for the Webb Space Telescope
Though exoplanet discoveries have been pouring in for the last few years, there’s an extra level of thrill when scientists find one today.
That’s because we now have the James Webb Space Telescope, another unbelievable machine that sits a million miles from Earth and decodes secrets of the universe — cosmic data hidden under the guise of infrared light.
“And, in a stroke of good fortune,” the press release states of TOI-1452 b, “it is located in a region of the sky that the telescope can observe year round.”
“Our observations with the Webb Telescope will be essential to better understanding TOI-1452 b,” René Doyon, director of the University of Montréal’s iREx, author of the recent study and member of the team behind one of the JWST’s major pieces of equipment, said in the release. “As soon as we can, we will book time on Webb to observe this strange and wonderful world.”
With JWST, Doyon and fellow researchers hope to study this exoplanet’s atmosphere in better detail and test whether it really is an awesome world of liquid water. Per the team, it is one of the few known temperate planets that exhibit characteristics consistent with an ocean planet. This is why it’s so tantalizing to muse about.
Furthermore, the reason TOI-1452 b is expected to have such a chill climate is that the star it orbits in the binary star system is much smaller than our sun, and doesn’t stray too far from the planet of interest. This ball of gas sits 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 needed to call on a few other high-tech instruments – which would also blow the minds of our hypothetical ancient audience – such as the Observatoire du Mont-Megantic’s PESTO camera. That device specializes in the red part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
“The OMM played a crucial role in confirming the nature of this signal and estimating the planet’s radius,” Cadieux said. “This was no routine check. We had to make sure the signal detected by TESS was really caused by an exoplanet circling TOI-1452, the largest of the two stars in that binary system.”
JWST, may this (water) world be your oyster.