Australian astronomer confirms the existence of giant exoplanet the size of Jupiter

An artist’s impression of the planet. Photo: Supplied by George Zhou.

The existence of a giant exoplanet 500 light years away from Earth has been confirmed, thanks to the help of a backyard astronomer in Perth.

The planet — named HATS-6b — was first discovered by HATSouth survey when it made a transit in front of its star, causing a dip in the amount of light.

Telescopes from northern New South Wales in Australia and observatories had been set up in Chile and Namibia to monitor the brightness of hundreds of thousands of stars to see if there were any dims.

Mr Thiam-Guan Tan confirmed the planet’s existence from the comfort of his backyard with the help of his 30cm telescope.

The planet is believed to be “the size of Jupiter” and “the mass of Saturn”, made up largely of hydrogen and helium with a rocky core, according to George Zhou, a researcher from the School of Astrophysics and Astronomy at the Australian National University.

Whilst Mercury orbits the Sun only once every 88 days, the exoplanet orbits once every 3.3 days — suggesting it is unusually close to its host star.

“The cool thing about HATS-6b is that because it is big and has a relatively ‘puffed up’ atmosphere, we potentially can go and measure the presence of things like water vapour, methane, or clouds in its atmosphere,” says Zhou.

“We can do this because, when the planet passes in front of the star, the upper atmosphere of the planet appears somewhat translucent. We can record a spectrum of the atmosphere that way, which tells us what’s in the atmosphere.”

So far, Tan’s private observatory has been credited with the discovery of 11 exoplanets — planets that orbit a star outside of our solar system — including three supernovae which are exploding stars in distant galaxies.

Zhou says that it has been increasingly popular practice for professional astronomers to reach out to amateur astronomers because they are “getting more sophisticated with equipment and techniques”, spurring the discovery of exoplanets, supernovas and other variable stars.

There have been approximately 1900 exoplanets confirmed so far.

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