MOST Space Telescope Still At Work -
Taking A Closer Look At Exoplanet 70 Light-Years From Earth

2 July 2013

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Follow us: - MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of STars) space telescope weighs only 54 kg and is powered by solar panels. Now it celebrates its 10th birthday in space with new details on a distant super-Earth, and a renewed call for amateur astronomers to submit targets for the satellite.

"Over the years we’ve always half-joked that MOST could stand for My Own Space Telescope,” says MOST mission scientist and UBC astrophysicist Jaymie Matthews.

“This is a chance for an armchair astronomer to teach the world about new worlds around other suns, and to celebrate Canada’s and MOST’s birthdays."

Click on image to enlarge

It's difficult to imagine that a 15-cm optical telescope carried aboard a microsatellite the size of a small photocopier could provide any fundamental information about the nature of the Universe. But that is exactly what is expected of the MOST (Microvariability and Oscillations of STars) project, the Canadian Space Agency?s first science microsat and the first all-Canadian space astronomy mission. Credits: Dept. of Physics & Astronomy University of British Columbia

After ten years in orbit, MOST space telescope - the veteran instrument - continues to generate extraordinary results.

This time, MOST has delivered data regarding size and mass of HD 97658b, an exoplanet 70 light-years from Earth. The discovery of this particular exoplanet is not new.

HD 97658b was discovered in 2011 by a team of astronomers using the Keck Observatory and a technique sometimes called Doppler wobble. But only a lower limit could be set on the planet's mass, and nothing was known about its size.

"Measuring an exoplanet's size and mass leads to a determination of its density, which in turn allows astronomers to say something about its composition," says Diana Dragomir, a postdoctoral astronomer with the University of California Santa Barbara who conducted the research while at UBC.

"Measuring the properties of super-Earths in particular tells us whether they are mainly rocky, water-rich, mini gas giants, or something entirely different."

A super-Earth is an exoplanet with a mass and radius between those of the Earth and Neptune--the term refers to the planet’s mass and doesn’t imply similar temperature or environment to Earth. The brightness of the star that HD 97658b orbits allows astronomers to study the star and planet in ways not possible for most exoplanet systems around fainter stars.

Like planet e around 55 Cancri A and HD 7924 b, HD 97658 b has a very hot, tight orbit within 0.083 AUs. Credits: JPL/NASA

The planet orbits its sun every 9.5 days, at a distance a dozen times closer than we are from our Sun, which is too close to be in the Habitable Zone, nicknamed The Goldilocks Zone.

The relative size of the Earth and Sun next to those of HD 97658 (the star) and HD 97658b (the super-Earth exoplanet). Credit: Jason Eastman and Diana Dragomir

The average density of HD 97658b is about four grams per cubic centimeter, a third of the density of lead but denser than most rocks. Astronomers see great significance in that value -- about 70 percent of the average density of Earth -- since the surface gravity of HD 97658b could hold onto a thick atmosphere.

But there's unlikely to be alien life breathing those gases.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," says Matthews. "But this proves a hundred thousand pictures from MOST are worth a close-up of a star system a thousand light years away."

The results are published online Monday in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

See also:
Lightest Exoplanet Discovered Outside The Solar System

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