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Three NASA Telescopes Look at an Angry Young Star Together

Three NASA Telescopes Look at an Angry Young Star Together

Science is a shared endeavor. We learn more when we work together. Today, July 18, we’re using three different space telescopes to observe the same star/planet system!

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As our Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) enters its third year of observations, it’s taking a new look at a familiar system this month. And today it won’t be alone. Astronomers are looking at AU Microscopii, a young fiery nearby star – about 22 million years old – with the TESS, NICER and Swift observatories.

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TESS will be looking for more transits – the passage of a planet across a star – of a recently-discovered exoplanet lurking in the dust of AU Microscopii (called AU Mic for short). Astronomers think there may be other worlds in this active system, as well!

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Our Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope on the International Space Station will also focus on AU Mic today. While NICER is designed to study neutron stars, the collapsed remains of massive stars that exploded as supernovae, it can study other X-ray sources, too. Scientists hope to observe stellar flares by looking at the star with its high-precision X-ray instrument.

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Scientists aren’t sure where the X-rays are coming from on AU Mic — it could be from a stellar corona or magnetic hot spots. If it’s from hot spots, NICER might not see the planet transit, unless it happens to pass over one of those spots, then it could see a big dip!

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A different team of astronomers will use our Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory to peer at AU Mic in X-ray and UV to monitor for high-energy flares while TESS simultaneously observes the transiting planet in the visible spectrum. Stellar flares like those of AU Mic can bathe planets in radiation.

Studying high-energy flares from AU Mic with Swift will help us understand the flare-rate over time, which will help with models of the planet’s atmosphere and the system’s space weather. There’s even a (very) small chance for Swift to see a hint of the planet’s transit!

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The flares that a star produces can have a direct impact on orbiting planets’ atmospheres. The high-energy photons and particles associated with flares can alter the chemical makeup of a planet’s atmosphere and erode it away over time.

Another time TESS teamed up with a different spacecraft, it discovered a hidden exoplanet, a planet beyond our solar system called AU Mic b, with the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope. That notable discovery inspired our latest poster! It’s free to download in English and Spanish.

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Spitzer’s infrared instrument was ideal for peering at dusty systems! Astronomers are still using data from Spitzer to make discoveries. In fact, the James Webb Space Telescope will carry on similar study and observe AU Mic after it launches next year.

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