Magazine article Science News

New Planet-Hunter Captures Quarry: Kepler Mission Spots Five Extrasolar Orbs in First Six Weeks

Magazine article Science News

New Planet-Hunter Captures Quarry: Kepler Mission Spots Five Extrasolar Orbs in First Six Weeks

Article excerpt

NASA's planet-hunting Kepler mission is off to a precocious start. The first six weeks of observations recorded by the space faring telescope, combined with follow-up studies from the ground, have revealed five previously unknown extra-solar planets--one body roughly the size of Neptune and four low-density versions of Jupiter. All reside within roasting distance of their parent stars.

The findings appear to reinforce hints from ground-based telescopes that stars have relatively few close-in planets with a mass between that of Saturn and Neptune, says Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

Lead mission scientist William Borucki of NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and colleagues reported the findings on January 4, and a paper describing the results appeared online January 7 in Science.

Astronomers say that the early results bode well for achieving Kepler's main goal: finding Earthlike planets in or near the habitable zones of sun like stars.

Kepler, launched in March 2009 and expected to last 3 1/2 years, detects planets by recording tiny decreases in starlight when one transits, or passes across the face of its parent star. Kepler "has already established that Earth-size transiting planets can be found," says theorist Sara Seager of MIT, a member of the discovery team. "We are salivating over the upcoming data and Kepler discoveries."

The least-massive planet found by Kepler during its early observations, dubbed Kepler-4b has a radius and density comparable to that of both Neptune and GJ 436b, a Neptune-like transiting planet observed by the European COROT satellite in 2007. …

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