May 22 (UPI) -- Astronomers have discovered a trio of exocomets circling Beta Pictoris, a star located 63 light-years from Earth.
The discovery was made possible by NASA's newest planet-hunter, TESS. Though the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite was designed to locate exoplanets, its instrumentation provides spectral data precise enough to pick out the transits of faraway comets.
While studying the Beta Pictoris light curve observed by TESS, scientists recognized the signatures of three comets.
"The data showed a significant decrease in the intensity of the light of the observed star," Sebastian Zieba and Konstanze Zwintz, researchers at the Institute of Astro and Particle Physics at the University of Innsbruck, explained in a news release. "These variations due to darkening by an object in the star's orbit can clearly be related to a comet."
The details of their discovery will be published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Scientists have previously discovered exocomets using data collected by the Kepler Space Telescope.
"The space telescope Kepler concentrated on older stars similar to the Sun in a relatively small area in the sky," Zwintz said. "TESS, on the other hand, observes stars all over the sky, including young stars. We therefore expect further discoveries of this kind in the future."
Previous analysis of Beta Pictori's spectrum had suggested the presence of exocomets, but the suggestion remained unconfirmed until now.
"The TESS data provide long overdue and independent evidence for their existence," said Grant Kennedy, physicist at the University of Warwick. "Our next aim is to find similar signatures around other stars, and this discovery shows that TESS is up to the task."