National Centre of Competence in Research PlanetS
Gesellschaftsstrasse 6 | 3012 Bern | Switzerland
  +41 31 684 32 39

Two planets around a red dwarf

The “SAINT-EX” Observatory, led by scientists from the National Centre of Competence in Research NCCR PlanetS of the University of Bern and the University of Geneva, has detected two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266. The Mexico-based telescope thus demonstrates its high precision and takes an important step in the quest of finding potentially habitable worlds.

Red dwarfs are the coolest kind of star. As such, they potentially allow liquid water to exist on planets that are quite close to them. In the search for habitable worlds beyond the borders of our solar system, this is a big advantage: the distance between an exoplanet and its star is a crucial factor for its detection. The closer the two are, the higher the chance that astronomers can detect the planet from Earth.

“But these stars are rather small and emit little light compared to most other stars, such as our Sun”, Brice-Olivier Demory, lead author of the study and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Bern explains. These factors make them challenging to observe in detail. Without the proper instruments, any planets that might orbit them could easily be overlooked – especially terrestrial planets, like Earth, that are comparably small.

A dedicated telescope
One instrument, with which it is possible to study red dwarfs and their planets closely, is the Mexico-based SAINT-EX telescope, co-operated by the NCCR PlanetS. SAINT-EX is an acronym that stands for Search And characterIsatioN of Transiting EXoplanets. The project has been named in honour of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Saint-Ex), the famous writer, poet and aviator. The SAINT-EX Observatory is a fully robotic facility hosting a 1-metre telescope. It is equipped with instrumentation specifically suited to enable high-precision detection of small planets orbiting cool stars.

The SAINT-EX telescope in Mexico. Source: Instituto de Astronomía de Astronomía, UNAM/E. Cadena.

Now, this specialization pays off: earlier this year, the telescope was able to detect two exoplanets orbiting the star TOI-1266, located around 120 light years from Earth. The research, published recently in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, provides a first impression of their characteristics.

A peculiar pair
Compared to the planets in our solar system, TOI-1266 b and c are much closer to their star – it takes them only 11 and 19 days respectively to orbit it. However, as their host star is much cooler than the Sun, their temperatures are not very extreme: the outer planet has approximately the temperature of Venus (although it is 7 times closer to its star than Venus is to the Sun).

The two planets are of similar density, possibly corresponding to a composition of about a half of rocky and metallic material and half water. This makes them about half as rocky as Earth or Venus but also far rockier than Uranus or Neptune.

In size, the planets clearly differ from each other. The inner planet, TOI-1266 b, measures up to a little under two-and-a-half times the Earth’s diameter. This makes it a so-called “sub-Neptune”. The outer planet, TOI-1266 c, is just over one-and-a-half times the size of our planet. Thus, it belongs to the category of “super-Earths”.

The planets TOI-1266 b and c in a so-called mass-radius diagram. Some planets of our solar system (see legend), as well as background planets from the NASA Exoplanet Archiv (in grey) are shown for reference. Source: Demory et al. (2020)

This places the two planets at the edges of the so-called radius-valley, as Brice-Olivier Demory explains: “Planets between about the radius of TOI-1266 b and c are quite rare, likely because of the effect of strong irradiation from the star, which can erode their atmospheres”. Yilen Gómez Maqueo Chew, SAINT-EX Project Coordinator and researcher at the National Autonomous University of Mexico adds: “Being able to study two different types of planets in the same system is a great opportunity to better understand how these different sized planets come to be”.

Good timing and close collaboration

Brice-Olivier Demory is a Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Bern, Center for Space and Habitability (CSH). Image:  University of Bern

Having this opportunity, especially this year, is anything but a given. Firstly, the scientists were fortunate enough to be able to complete their observations shortly before the Covid-19-related lockdown in Mexico. In addition, the team not only benefited from their close scientific cooperation, but was also supported by unusual actors, as Demory points out: “The Mexican Embassy in Bern was a great help in facilitating the discussions with the Mexican government  and in providing continued support to the project.”

Shortly after the observations were made, the telescope had to be closed due to the consequences of the pandemic. This has not changed until today. The scientists hope to resume operation of SAINT-EX in the next few months and to target the next red dwarf and its potential planets.


Publication Details:
Brice-Olivier Demory et al.: A super-Earth and a sub-Neptune orbiting the bright, quiet M3 dwarfnTOI-1266, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Volume 642, 2 October 2020.

Categories: News

Do you like what you see ? Share it!

Share Tweet Share Save Share Email