NASA can now determine an alien planet's habitability by measuring its 'weight'

The American space research organisation has a new instrument that can determine if an exoplanet is habitable by measuring its density

NASA has helped develop a new instrument that is capable of measuring the density of an exoplanet. Through this data, the agency is able to determine if an alien world is habitable.

The agency's latest instrument, dubbed as NEID, was developed through a partnership between the National Science Foundation and NASA. It is currently mounted on the WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

The NEID instrument, mounted on the 3.5-meter WIYN telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. The NASA-NSF Exoplanet Observational Research (NN-EXPLORE) partnership funds NEID (short for NN-EXPLORE Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler spectroscopy). NSF's National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory/KPNO/NSF/AURA

Understanding The Radial Velocity Method

According to NASA, NEID is capable of accurately measuring the weight of an exoplanet, which is a planet that lies beyond the Solar System. It weighs planets using the radial velocity method, which is a concept that scientists use to measure how much a host star wobbles or moves due to the gravitational pull of a nearby planet. "The more massive the planet, the stronger its tug and the faster the star moves," NASA said in a statement.

Within the Solar System, for instance, the gravitational pull of certain planets can cause the Sun to wobble. Jupiter, for example, causes the Sun to move back and forth at a rate of about 43 feet per second due to its immense gravitational force. Earth, on the other hand, can cause the Sun to wobble at about 0.3 feet per second.

K2-33b, shown in this illustration, is one of the youngest exoplanets detected to date using NASA Kepler Space Telescope. It makes a complete orbit around its star in about five days. These two characteristics combined provide exciting new directions for planet-formation theories. K2-33b could have formed on a farther out orbit and quickly migrated inward. Alternatively, it could have formed in situ, or in place. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Determining An Exoplanet's Habitability

Through the radial velocity method, NEID is able to calculate the mass and diameter of a planet. Scientists can then use these factors to determine the density of a planet. By identifying the density of a planet, scientists can analyze if it is rocky like Earth, Mars and Venus, or if it is mostly gaseous like Saturn and Jupiter.

As noted by NASA, these are the initial factors that can help determine if an exoplanet is habitable or not. In order to utilize NEID's full potential, NASA plans to use it to analyze the findings from its exoplanet-hunting mission TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. "This is a first step toward finding potentially habitable worlds similar to Earth," the agency explained. "When applied to many planets, the method provides a more comprehensive view of what types are most common in the galaxy and how other planetary systems form."

Related topics : Nasa Exoplanet Space