Twice the size of Earth, planet 503b has just been discovered

About twice the size of Earth, 503b orbits its own star every six days.

Scientists using data from NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, which has recently awoken from a slumber meant to conserve precious fuel, have found Wolf 503b, an exoplanet about twice the size of our own Earth — a mere 145 light years away, in the Virgo constellation.


The team involved includes Canadian, American, and German researchers. The lead author of the study is Merrin Peterson, a graduate student at the Institute for Research on Exoplanets.

Size comparison: Earth, Wolf 503b, and Neptune. The color blue for Wolf 503b is imaginary; nothing is yet known about the atmosphere and surface of the planet. Credit: NASA Goddard/Robert Simmon (Earth), NASA / JPL (Neptune).

"The discovery and confirmation of this new exoplanet was very rapid, thanks to the collaboration that I and my advisor, Björn Benneke, are a part of," Peterson said. "In May, when the latest release of Kepler K2 data came in, we quickly ran a program that allowed us to find as many interesting candidate exoplanets as possible. Wolf 503b was one of them."

The planet was found by observing the changes in the light that the dwarf star (named, of course, Wolf 503) exhibits as the planet crosses in front of it; since Wolf 503b orbits its sun every six days, and is approximately 10x closer to its sun than our planet Mercury is ours, the effect it creates on the light from this star is readily seen by a telescope of Kepler's capability.

It's precisely because of Kepler that we know this: Most of the planets in our galaxy that orbit close to their stars like 503b does are usually between Earth and Neptune in size.

Artist's impression of the exoplanet Wolf 503b and its host star. Image credit: Sci-News.com

We have nothing like 503b in our solar system, so it's a rare opportunity to study such a planet, and potentially figure out if those kinds of planetary bodies are likely to be rocky and Earth-like, or more gaseous, like Neptune. Because the star that 503b revolves around is relatively close to us, it's very bright; this will allow more detailed study and inferences about its density and mass.

If indications are that it's a higher-mass planet, after calculating its radius using similar light-bending telescopic data, this will provide researchers an approximate density of the planet, which will inform them as to its composition. In other words, a more dense, higher-mass planet would likely be rocky like Earth, and a much less dense and more gaseous composition would put 503b into a Neptunian category.

A woman stands near a model of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on April 2, 2015. AFP PHOTO/ JIM WATSON (Photo credit JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

As Kepler reaches the end of its effective life cycle, a new telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is launching in early 2021 to replace both it and, after working alongside it for a while, Hubbel; it will be better able to study planets such as 503B, including chemical composition such as hydrogen and water.

“The brightness of the host star makes Wolf 503b a prime target for prompt radial velocity follow-up, Hubble Space Telescope transit spectroscopy, as well as detailed atmospheric characterization with JWST," the astronomers said.

Speaking of the JWST, here are the top 5 things about it:

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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Photo credit: MARWAN NAAMANI / AFP / Getty Images
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Photo credit: Robert Bye on Unsplash
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