NASA discovers a distant Neptune-like planet with a thick atmosphere

NASA has discovered a new planet that's about 90 light-years from Earth that it says is very similar to Neptune. The distant planet is called TOI-1231 b, and it's a gaseous world with a potentially rich atmosphere that NASA believes is ripe for study. In addition, TOI-1231 b is significantly larger than Earth at about 3.5 times the diameter of our planet.

By human standards, the planet is also very warm at 134 degrees Fahrenheit. But, astronomers describe it as one of the coolest comparatively small planets discovered so far despite its high temperature. The planet is also located in a prime position for its atmosphere to be studied by space-based telescopes.

TOI-1231 b orbits a red-dwarf star that is smaller but will live longer than our Sun. The planet orbits its host star in about 24 days making for a very short year. Despite being so close to its host star that its year is only 24 Earth days long, it's on the cooler side because the star isn't as hot as the sun. NASA is clear that the planet is not habitable due to its size, but it could offer scientists a chance to capture a "bar-code" type reading of the atmosphere of a temperate, Neptune-sized exoplanet.

Gathering that data will allow NASA to compare similar worlds elsewhere in the galaxy and could bring more insights into the composition and formation of exoplanets and planetary systems. Astronomers plan to use the Hubble Space Telescope and, when launched the James Webb Space Telescope to observe starlight shining through the atmosphere of TOI-1231 b.

Molecules in the planet's atmosphere will absorb light from the spectrum produced by the star leaving dark lines that can be read like a bar-code to reveal gases present in the planet's atmosphere. NASA has seen evidence that clouds possibly made of water are present in the planet's atmosphere. Further study should reveal more information in the future.