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[Slashdot] - There Could Be Many More Earth-Sized Planets Than Previously Thought

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New findings from a team using the international Gemini Observatory and the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory suggest that Earth-sized worlds could be lurking undiscovered in binary star systems, hidden in the glare of their parent stars. As roughly half of all stars are in binary systems, this means that astronomers could be missing many Earth-sized worlds. Phys.Org reports: Earth-sized planets may be much more common than previously realized. Astronomers working at NASA Ames Research Center have used the twin telescopes of the international Gemini Observatory, a Program of NSF's NOIRLab, to determine that many planet-hosting stars identified by NASA's TESS exoplanet-hunting mission are actually pairs of starsâ"known as binary starsâ"where the planets orbit one of the stars in the pair. After examining these binary stars, the team has concluded that Earth-sized planets in many two-star systems might be going unnoticed by transit searches like TESS's, which look for changes in the light from a star when a planet passes in front of it. The light from the second star makes it more difficult to detect the changes in the host star's light when the planet transits. Using the 'Alopeke and Zorro instruments on the Gemini North and South telescopes in Chile and Hawai'i, respectively, the team observed hundreds of nearby stars that TESS had identified as potential exoplanet hosts. They discovered that 73 of these stars are really binary star systems that had appeared as single points of light until observed at higher resolution with Gemini. "With the Gemini Observatory's 8.1-meter telescopes, we obtained extremely high-resolution images of exoplanet host stars and detected stellar companions at very small separations," said Katie Lester of NASA's Ames Research Center, who led this work. Lester's team also studied an additional 18 binary stars previously found among the TESS exoplanet hosts using the NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet and Stellar Speckle Imager (NESSI) on the WIYN 3.5-meter Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, also a Program of NSF's NOIRLab. After identifying the binary stars, the team compared the sizes of the detected planets in the binary star systems to those in single-star systems. They realized that the TESS spacecraft found both large and small exoplanets orbiting single stars, but only large planets in binary systems. These results imply that a population of Earth-sized planets could be lurking in binary systems and going undetected using the transit method employed by TESS and many other planet-hunting telescopes. Some scientists had suspected that transit searches might be missing small planets in binary systems, but the new study provides observational support to back it up and shows which sizes of exoplanets are affected. The researchers report their findings in a paper via arXiv.

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