NASA’s planet-hunting space probe collected data on the three extrasolar objects just one year after the mission launched in April 2018. But it took a dedicated team of scientists from Austria, the UK and the Netherlands to properly analyse and interpret the data. The international collaboration has now confirmed their findings of three so-called exocomets orbiting the star Beta Pictoris 63 light years from Earth – 370,353,400,000,000 miles. And to further underscore the incredible achievement, the discovery was made after astrologers first predicted exocomets around the distant star in 1999.
The comet study will be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
NASA’s TESS telescope is primed to locate alien worlds in remote solar systems by recording brief dips in brightness from stars.
Each of these blimps is a potential exoplanet candidate passing in front of its star.
Comets, however, are much harder to detect using this technology because of their much smaller size.
Sebastian Zieba, a Master’s student at the University of Innsbruck, discovered the exocomet signals in March this year when investigating light curves from Beta Pictoris.
Together with fellow researcher Konstanze Zwintz, he said: “The data showed a significant decrease in the intensity of the light of the observed star.
“These variations due to darkening by an object in the star’s orbit can clearly be related to a comet.”
Participating in the study were also Dr Grant Kennedy from the University of Warwick and Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Dr Grant said: “The discovery is really important for the science of extrasolar comets for several reasons.
“Beta Pictoris had been thought to host exocomets for three decades from a different technique and TESS data provided long overdue and independent evidence for their existence.
“Our next aim is to find similar signatures around other stars and this discovery shows that TESS is up to the task.”
The study, which has been posted online prior to publication, can be found here.
Quick facts about comets:
1. Unlike rocky asteroids, comets are frozen chunks of ice, rock and dust hurtling through space.
2. When comets heat up in direct sunlight, they create glowing heads of dust and gas, which NASA claims are “larger than most planets”.
3. The dust and gases stretching out from a barreling comet, do so for many millions of miles.
4. NASA predicts there are billions of comets in our solar system but we currently only know of 3,573.
5. Comets are generally named after the astronomers who discover them.