Kepler's newest exoplanets may include a near-twin of Earth

20 June, 2017, 01:22 | Author: Delbert Rhodes
  • Details of the Kepler Space Telescope mission

NASA announced the new interstellar additions at a Monday news conference at NASA's Ames Research Center, completing the world's most comprehensive catalog of exoplanets.

For more information about Kepler Exoplanet Week, go to nasa.gov/kepler/exoplanetweek.

Liquid water is thought to be key to the existence of life.

This illustration depicts a sample of the many planets discovered by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

"This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy's most compelling questions - how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?" said Susan Thompson, a Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute and lead author of the catalog, at the announcement. All of Kepler's observations were in a small patch of sky between the constellations of Cygnus and Lyra. K2, which has found over 100 different exoplanets so far, was started as a way to give the telescope a second life after Kepler suffered multiple mission-threatening technological setbacks.

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"Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future Nasa missions to directly image another Earth". "Intermediate-size planets between these two size groups are relatively rare". Both results have significant implications for the search for life.

Launched in March 2009, Kepler used a 95-megapixel camera to detect the presence of planets by precisely measuring how the light of a parent star dimmed ever so slightly when one or more worlds passed in front as viewed by the spacecraft. As it trailed behind Earth's on its yearly trip around the sun, Kepler constantly watched more than 160,000 stars for any hint of dimming. If Kepler, the planet and its star don't line up, we can't see a transit. Earth-sized planets are of particular interest because they can teach us about how our own planet formed, and because there's a small chance they could harbor life.

This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog, gathered by reprocessing the entire set of data from Kepler's observations during the first four years of its primary mission. Scientists with the mission expect that Kepler's K2 mission will continue until sometime in 2018.

"The gap in radius is really interesting and comes from meticulous follow-up of the previously discovered Kepler planets, rather than the ones announced today", says astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University, who was not involved in the study.

Typically, exoplanets fall in one of two categories: super-Earths, which have a radius that is 1.5 times that of the Earth, rocky surfaces, and often little to no atmosphere; and those that are like mini-Neptunes, which re about twice the Earth's radius with thick atmospheres and no rocky surface. He likened the discovery to realizing that mammals and reptiles are on separate branches of the evolutionary tree.

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