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University of Innsbruck: Sensational discovery of three exocomets around the star Beta Pictoris

spiral galaxy © Michaela Pink

For the very first time, researchers at the Institute for Astro- and Particle Physics, together with colleagues from Leiden University (Netherlands) and the University of Warwick (UK), have detected three comets outside of our solar system around the star Beta Pictoris, 63 light years away, with the help of TESS data.
Just about a year after the launch of the NASA mission TESS, the first three comets orbiting the nearby star Beta Pictoris outside our solar system were discovered in data from the space telescope. The main goal of TESS is to search for exoplanets i.e. planets orbiting other stars. The recognition of signals from much smaller exocomets compared to planets requires the analysis of a precise light curve, which can now be obtained using the technical sophistication of the new space telescope. Sebastian Zieba, a member of the team of Prof. Konstanze Zwintz at the Institute of Astro- and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck, discovered the signal of the exocomets when he investigated the TESS light curve of Beta Pictoris in March this year. "The data showed a significant decrease in the intensity of the light of the observed star. These variations due to darkening by an object in the star's orbit can clearly be related to a comet," the researchers said, expressing their pleasure with the sensational discovery. In collaboration with Matthew Kenworthy from Leiden University (Netherlands) and Grant Kennedy from the University of Warwick (UK), they analysed and interpreted the signals of the exocomets. The results will now be published in the international journal "Astronomy and Astrophysics".

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