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Super-Earth and mini-Neptune in synchronized dance
Among exoplanets in our galaxy, super-Earths and mini-Neptunes are two of the most common types. Even though neither exists in our own solar system, astronomers have discovered many in other solar systems. Now, researchers at the University of Liège in Belgium say they have found a pair of these worlds in another solar system 150 light-years away. What makes this system extra interesting, however, is that these two planets are in a synchronous dance around their red dwarf star. The astronomers made the discovery using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) and ground-based telescopes.
The researchers first published their peer-reviewed findings in Astronomy and Astrophysics on April 12, 2023. The University of Liège announced the discovery on May 25, 2023.
A collaborative discovery
Researchers in Europe and the U.S. collaborated to make the discovery, using data from both TESS and ground-based telescopes. Astrophysicist Francisco J. Pozuelos, the lead author, explained:
TESS is conducting an all-sky survey using the transit method, that is, monitoring the stellar brightness of thousands of stars in the search for a slight dimming, which could be caused by a planet passing between the star and the observer. However, despite its power to detect new worlds, the TESS mission needs support from ground-based telescopes to confirm the planetary nature of the detected signals.
TESS is designed specifically to search for exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars. This includes planets like super-Earths and mini-Neptunes, as well as Earth-sized rocky worlds.
A super-Earth and mini-Neptune
The two planets – TOI-2096 b and TOI-2096 c – are both larger than Earth. TOI-2096 b isn’t much bigger though, with a radius only 1.2 times that of Earth. This makes it a super-Earth, a rocky world larger than our own planet, but smaller than Neptune.
TOI-2096 c, on the other hand, is 1.9 times Earth’s radius. The researchers say that this likely makes it a mini-Neptune. It may have a small rocky and icy core, but it would be enveloped in a deep, thick atmosphere rich in either hydrogen or water. That means it would be similar to the ice giants in our solar system, Uranus and Neptune, but smaller. But these exoplanets also offer a unique look at both super-Earths and mini-Neptunes and how they may have formed. Co-author Mathilde Timmermans said:
These planets are of crucial importance given their sizes. The formation of super-Earths and mini-Neptunes remains a mystery today. Several formation models try to explain it, but none fits the observations perfectly. TOI-2096 is the only system found to date with a super-Earth and a mini-Neptune precisely at the sizes where the models contradict each other. In other words, TOI-2096 may be the system we’ve been looking for to understand how these planetary systems have formed.
Two worlds in a synchronized dance
A super-Earth and mini-Neptune in the same system is interesting on its own. But there’s more. The orbits of the two planets are synchronized with each other.
In the same time that the outer planet completes one orbit, the inner planet completes two. You could say that the planets are in a kind of cosmic dance with each other. Timmermans explained:
Making an exhaustive analysis of the data, we found that the two planets were in resonant orbits: for each orbit of the outer planet, the inner planet orbits the star twice.
Their periods are, therefore, very close to being a multiple of each other, with about 3.12 days for planet b and about 6.38 days for planet c. This is a very particular configuration, and it causes a strong gravitational interaction between the planets. This interaction delays or accelerates the passage of the planets in front of their star and could lead to the measurement of the planetary masses using larger telescopes in the near future.
Super-Earth and mini-Neptune observations with Webb
Luckily, these two planets are well-suited for observations with NASA’s Webb Space Telescope. Pozuelos said:
Furthermore, these planets are among the best in their category to study their possible atmospheres. Thanks to the relative sizes of the planets with respect to the host star, as well as the brightness of the star, we find that this system is one of the best candidates for a detailed study of their atmosphere with the JWST space telescope. We hope to be able to do this quickly by coordinating with other universities and research centers. These studies will help confirm the presence of an atmosphere, extensive or not, around planets b and c, thus giving us clues as to their formation mechanism.
Bottom line: Astronomers say they’ve discovered a super-Earth and mini-Neptune exoplanet system where the orbits of the two worlds are synchronized in a cosmic dance.
Source: A super-Earth and a mini-Neptune near the 2:1 MMR straddling the radius valley around the nearby mid-M dwarf TOI-2096
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New Dinosaur With Rows of Bristles On its Head Like a Toothbrush Has Been Discovered
Researchers say this strange, dome-headed, bristle-bristling dino from 68 million years ago has traces of keratin, what fingernails and rhino horn are made of, sticking up from its skull.
The paleontologists who discovered the beast completed a CT scan on the partially-completed skull and revealed these keratin bristles, described as giving the animal the appearance of having a “brush cut.”
The animal is called Platytholus clemensi, and is a type of pachycephalosaur discovered in 2011 in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation. It was a plant-eating dinosaur that grew up to 15 feet long and walked on two legs.
Dinosaur skulls sport an amazing variety of bony ornaments, ranging from the horns of Triceratops and the mohawk-like crests of hadrosaurs to the bumps and knobs covering the head of Tyrannosaurus rex.
There is a theory that pachycephalosaurs bashed heads in courtship rituals much like some mammals do today. But despite a gash being discovered on the skull which had healed up, the researchers say there is no real evidence to support this, and the discovery of bristles is currently considered more like an elaborate headdress.
“We don’t know the exact shape of what was covering the dome, but it had this vertical component that we interpret as covered with keratin,” said Dr. Mark Goodwin of the University of California, Berkeley. “A bristly, flat-topped covering biologically makes sense. Animals change or use certain features, particularly on the skull, for multiple functions.”
The head wound is about half an inch deep but it could have been caused by anything from a falling rock to a chance encounter with a tree or another dinosaur.
“We see probably the first unequivocal evidence of trauma in the head of any pachycephalosaur, where the bone was actually ejected from the dome somehow and healed partially in life,” said Dr. Goodwin. “We don’t know how that was caused. It could be head-butting—we don’t dispute that.”
However his colleague and co-author of the paper describing the curious animal, Dr. John Horner at the University of California, Orange, believes that since Dinosaurs’ closest living relatives are birds, they should look at skull ornamentation among them, rather than their distant lizard precursors as a guide for what the purpose of these bristles was.
“That’s the first place everybody wants to go—let’s crash them together. And, you know, we just don’t see any evidence of it, histologically,” said Dr. Horner. “Any features, any accouterments that we find on the heads of dinosaurs, I think, are all display—it’s all about display.”
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He said that reptiles and birds, the closest relatives to dinosaurs, have head ornamentation for display and rarely butt heads like mammals such as sheep. While crocodiles bash their heads together over territorial and mating disputes, sometimes for hours, dinosaurs diverged from crocodiles more than 200 million years before this animal was living.
Pachycephalosaurs also lack a pneumatic chamber above the braincase, as found in bighorn sheep, which protects their brain from injury.
“I don’t see any reason to turn dinosaurs into mammals, rather than just trying to figure out what they might be doing as bird-like reptiles,” Dr. Horner said.
The study in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology said that blood vessels in the skull ended abruptly at the surface of the dome, indicating that the blood originally fed some tissue that was sitting atop the dome.
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And as the vessels were perpendicular to the surface they most likely fed a vertical structure.
“What we see are these vertical canals coming to the surface, which suggests that there might be keratin on top, but it’s oriented vertically,” Horner continued.
“I think these pachycephalosaurs had something on top of their head that we don’t know about. I don’t think they were just domes. I think there was some elaborate display on top of their head.”
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The authors added that it could have been high, colored, or even subject to changes in color depending on the seasons. It suggests they were used for sexual display and courting, though they may have been used to butt the flanks, as opposed to the heads, of male rivals.
Dr. Goodwin said he suspects that dinosaurs likely distinguished gender by color, as do most modern birds, such as cassowaries, peafowls, and toucans, which have bright integumental colors around the face and head for visual communication.
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