TOI-ing with Telescopes


Vinisha Cheella, Author

What is an Exoplanet?

       Exoplanets are planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. NASA’s Exoplanet Program’s purpose is to find undeniable evidence of current life. NASA does this by using transmission spectroscopy, a technique which analyzes light shot by a star through the atmosphere of a distant planet. As reported by NASA, “…the effect looks like a barcode. The slices missing from the light spectrum tell us which ingredients are present in the alien atmosphere. One pattern of black gaps might indicate methane, another, oxygen. Seeing those together could be a strong argument for the presence of life.”


The Discovery of Exoplanets and What this Means

       On September 7, 2022, a new exoplanet (now named LP 890-9b) was discovered by NASA’s satellite. LP 890-9b is estimated to be 30% larger than Earth and orbits the sun in 2.7 days. Utilizing Speculoos telescopes in Spain and Chile, Uliège researchers investigated more of the planet. There, they discovered a second exoplanet that is 40% larger than Earth and orbits the sun in 8.5 days. This planet is named SPECULOOS-2c.


       In a news release, a researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Francisco Pozuelos and a main co-author of the paper stated, “Although this planet orbits very close to its star, at a distance about ten times shorter than that of Mercury around our Sun, the amount of stellar irradiation it receives is still low, and could allow the presence of liquid water on the planet’s surface, provided it has a sufficient atmosphere. This is because the star LP 890-9 is about 6.5 times smaller than the Sun and has a surface temperature half that of our star.”

       Thus, the planet could be appropriate for life even though it is only 3.7 million miles away from its sun. In contrast, Earth is over 93 million miles away from our sun.

       The two latest “Super Earths”  planets are gauged to be roughly 100 light years away from Earth. When questioned about the new exoplanets, Mr. Monroe (an HN Geosystems and Physics teacher at Oakton High School) said, “I think it is amazing. Discovering these planets shows how far our technologies can go… TOI-1452b, it orbits a star (one of two), rightly named TOI-1452.  A PhD student at the University of Montreal determined its radius, which is no small feat given that this planetary system is 100 light years away.  This information [can be] helped to determine that TOI-1452b might in fact be as much as 30% water, based on its density.  That’s a big deal when you consider Earth is just 1% water”  (Monroe).

       Mr. Monroe advises interested students that they visit the website to see what missions have been selected for approval. He thinks TOI-1452b could be habitable if, “it is proven to be rich in water. In the near term, we might find simple life closer to us on the moons around the gas giants, like Jupiter’s moon Europa or Saturn’s Enceladus.  But to date there are merely somewhat favorable conditions for life discovered, and not evidence for life” (Monroe).

       When asked whether there will be a need for another planet to live on in the future, Mr. Monroe replied, “ We are perfectly designed to our surroundings. Beyond Earth we find very harsh conditions for life, but life can be tenacious, so who knows, advances in technology and what drives us, could lead to living on other planets.” 

       Though, if the possibility did arise, Mr. Monroe recommends that Oakton students can prevent that by, “The history of the space programs, I think, teaches two things.  First, we have to be in it for the long-term.  Explorations of space require the work of many lifetimes, that started well before Galileo for example.  Secondly, I think that we can’t do this alone, and partnerships are key, like in the case of TOI-1452b or Artemis. I think Oakton students are doing both, in school, out of school, and beyond, really our community is already engaged in developing a positive future.”