Tag Archives: kepler mission

In the Zone: How Scientists Search for Habitable Planets

There is only one planet we know of, so far, that is drenched with life. That planet is Earth, as you may have guessed, and it has all the right conditions for critters to thrive on its surface. Do other planets beyond our solar system, called exoplanets, also host life forms?

Astronomers still don’t know the answer, but they search for potentially habitable planets using a handful of criteria. Ideally, they want to find planets just like Earth, since we know without a doubt that life took root here. The hunt is on for planets about the size of Earth that orbit at just the right distance from their star – in a region termed the habitable zone. (more…)

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Cloud modeling expands estimate of life-supporting planets

Larger habitable zone suggests 60 billion planets could sustain water, life

A new study that calculates the influence of cloud behavior on climate doubles the number of potentially habitable planets orbiting red dwarfs, the most common type of star in the universe. This finding means that in the Milky Way galaxy alone, 60 billion planets may be orbiting red dwarf stars in the habitable zone.

Researchers at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University based their study, which appears in Astrophysical Journal Letters, on rigorous computer simulations of cloud behavior on alien planets. This cloud behavior dramatically expanded the estimated habitable zone of red dwarfs, which are much smaller and fainter than stars like the sun. (more…)

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NASA’s Kepler Mission Discovers Tiny Planet System

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Kepler mission scientists have discovered a new planetary system that is home to the smallest planet yet found around a star similar to our sun.

The planets are located in a system called Kepler-37, about 210 light-years from Earth in the constellation Lyra. The smallest planet, Kepler-37b, is slightly larger than our moon, measuring about one-third the size of Earth. It is smaller than Mercury, which made its detection a challenge. (more…)

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NASA’s Kepler Discovers 461 New Planet Candidates

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Kepler mission Monday announced the discovery of 461 new planet candidates. Four of the potential new planets are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s “habitable zone,” the region in the planetary system where liquid water might exist on the surface of a planet.

Based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2011, the findings show a steady increase in the number of smaller-size planet candidates and the number of stars with more than one candidate. (more…)

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NASA, Texas Astronomers Find First Multi-Planet System Around a Binary Star

FORT DAVIS, Texas — NASA’s Kepler mission has found the first multi-planet solar system orbiting a binary star, characterized in large part by University of Texas at Austin astronomers using two telescopes at the university’s McDonald Observatory in West Texas. The finding, which proves that whole planetary systems can form in a disk around a binary star, is published in today’s issue of the journal Science.

“It’s Tatooine, right?” said McDonald Observatory astronomer Michael Endl. “But this was not shown in Star Wars,” he said, referring to the periodic changes in the amount of daylight falling on a planet with two suns. Measurements of the star’s orbits showed that daylight on the planets would vary by a large margin over the 7.4-Earth-day period as the two stars completed their mutual orbits, each moving closer to, then farther from, the planets (which are themselves moving). (more…)

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First Habitable-Zone super-Earth Discovered in Orbit Around a Sun-like Star

Washington, D.C. — NASA’s Kepler Mission has discovered the first super-Earth orbiting in the habitable zone of a star similar to the Sun. A team of researchers, including Carnegie’s Alan Boss, has discovered what could be a large, rocky planet with a surface temperature of about 72 degrees Fahrenheit, comparable to a comfortable spring day on Earth. This landmark finding will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

The discovery team, led by William Borucki of the NASA Ames Research Center, used photometric data from the NASA Kepler space telescope, which monitors the brightness of 155,000 stars. Earth-size planets whose orbital planes are aligned such that they periodically pass in front of their stars result in tiny dimmings of their host star’s light–dimmings that can only be measured by a highly specialized space telescope like Kepler. (more…)

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NASA’s Kepler Mission Finds Three Smallest Exoplanets

PASADENA, Calif. – Astronomers using data from NASA’s Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth but orbit close to their star, making them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars, called exoplanets, only a handful are known to be rocky. (more…)

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NASA Discovers First Earth-Size Planets Beyond Our Solar System

PASADENA, Calif. — NASA’s Kepler mission has discovered the first Earth-size planets orbiting a sun-like star outside our solar system. The planets, called Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f, are too close to their star to be in the so-called habitable zone where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface, but they are the smallest exoplanets ever confirmed around a star like our sun.

The discovery marks the next important milestone in the ultimate search for planets like Earth. The new planets are thought to be rocky. Kepler-20e is slightly smaller than Venus, measuring 0.87 times the radius of Earth. Kepler-20f is slightly larger than Earth, measuring 1.03 times its radius. Both planets reside in a five-planet system called Kepler-20, approximately 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Lyra. (more…)

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