27Feb2014

Kepler Space Telescope Finds 715 New Worlds

 
The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on. NASA

The artist concept depicts multiple-transiting planet systems, which are stars with more than one planet. The planets eclipse or transit their host star from the vantage point of the observer. This angle is called edge-on. NASA

A statistical analysis of data collected by NASA’s Kepler space telescope has confirmed the discovery of 715 newly-found planets orbiting 305 stars. That’s an incredible tally! It pushes the total number of known planets beyond Earth’s solar system to nearly 1,700, researchers announced Wednesday. The planets were “found” in observations Kepler made in the first two years of its operation indicating solar systems where more than one planet might be lurking. Using a technique called “verification by multiplicity,” a team led by Jack Lissauer of NASA’s Ames Research Center and Jason Rowe at the SETI Institute was able to confirm the members of those multi-planet systems.

Nearly 95 percent of the newly discovered planets are smaller than Neptune, which is about four times bigger than Earth, and the solar systems all follow a similar “pancake” architecture, with the planets arranged in a plane around the parent star similar to the arrangement of Earth’s solar system. The data also show it is common for solar systems with relatively small planets to be in close orbits around their stars.

A decade of incredible photos

“Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates — but they were only candidates,” Lissauer said in a NASA statement. “We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.”

In a teleconference with reporters, Lissauer said the new technique “will be productive in the future. These results are based on the two years of Kepler observations. And with each additional year, we’ll be able to bring in a few hundred more planets.” Sara Seager, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was not involved in the study, said the results are a major step forward for planet hunters.

“For astronomers, we need to validate planets. Having ‘candidates’ just doesn’t cut it,” she said. “As scientists, we want a good qualitative handle on what’s actually going on. With hundreds of new validated planets, Kepler reinforces findings that small planets are extremely common in our galaxy.”

Launched in March 2009, Kepler was equipped with a 95-megapixel camera that was aimed at a patch of sky the size of an out-stretched hand that contains more than 4.5 million detectable stars. Kepler monitored the light from 160,000 of those suns.

The camera cannot directly detect the light reflected by an exo-planet. But if a planet passes in front of a star as viewed from Kepler, the star’s light will periodically dim slightly as the planet moves through its orbit. By precisely measuring those tiny changes, Kepler researchers can indirectly confirm a planet’s presence, size and distance from its sun.

Looking At Orbits

Large planets in close orbit around their stars were relatively easy to find. But to confirm Earth-like worlds in habitable zone orbits, that is, at a distance where water can exist as a liquid, Kepler needed to make repeated observations over three to four years, or orbits. Multi-planet systems can be detected by carefully studying the duration and frequency of a star’s dimming.

But a major stumbling black is confirming that dimming seen by Kepler is, in fact, caused by planets and not by a smaller star or even a binary star system in the background. As it turns out, multi-star systems are inherently unstable while multi-planet solar systems are more well behaved. The verification by multiplicity technique identifies those systems.

“This physical difference, the fact that you can’t have multiple star systems that look like planetary systems, is the basis of the validation by multiplicity,” Lissauer told reporters. “What we’ve been able to do with this is strike the mother lode, get a veritable exoplanet bonanza. … We’ve almost doubled, just today, the number of planets known to humanity.”The 715 planets announced Wednesday were found in data collected by Kepler between May 2009 and March 2011.

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The transit method is pretty easy to explain: if a planet’s orbit around its star happens to cause the planet to pass in front of the star from our point of view, then the planet will block a little bit of the Sun’s light for a brief time — a few hours to a day or so.

Four of the newly confirmed planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit their host stars in the so-called “Goldilocks” zone where water can exist as a liquid — a requirement for life as it is known on Earth.

“From this study we learn planets in these multi-systems are small and their systems are flat and circular — resembling pancakes — not your classical view of an atom,” research co-leader Jason Rowe said in a statement. “The more we explore the more we find familiar traces of ourselves amongst the stars that remind us of home.”

Kepler completed its primary three-year mission in November 2012. NASA managers promptly approved a four-year mission extension. In 2013, the spacecraft was hobbled by the failure of a second gyro stabilizer, preventing the pointing accuracy required for planet detection.

But scientists have four years of observations in hand, including more than 3,000 planet candidates, many of which may be confirmed with additional observations and analysis.

“Today’s announcement is based on the first two years of Kepler data,” Seager said. “We expect many more small planets to be uncovered during analysis of the second two years of data. Kepler is the gift that keeps on giving.” Source: CBS News

 Kepler Under The Microscope

‘That these new planets and solar systems look somewhat like our own, portends a great future when we have the James Webb Space Telescope in space to characterize the new worlds.’ Since the discovery of the first planets outside our solar system roughly two decades ago, verification has been a laborious planet-by-planet process.

A record breaking day for Kepler: The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets.

A record breaking day for Kepler: The histogram shows the number of planet discoveries by year for roughly the past two decades of the exoplanet search. The blue bar shows previous planet discoveries, the red bar shows previous Kepler planet discoveries, the gold bar displays the 715 new planets.

Now, scientists have a statistical technique that can be applied to many planets at once when they are found in systems that harbor more than one planet around the same star.

To verify this bounty of planets, a research team co-led by Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., analyzed stars with more than one potential planet, all of which were detected in the first two years of Kepler’s observations — May 2009 to March 2011.

WHAT IS KEPLER?

The Kepler space telescope orbits around the Sun, 40 million miles from Earth. It is named after 17th Century astronomer Johannes Kepler. It was launched in 2009 with the sole purpose of finding new stars and planets.

The new discovery was made by chance as scientists scoured data from the Kepler space telescope looking for evidence of moons rather than planets

The new discovery was made by chance as scientists scoured data from the Kepler space telescope looking for evidence of moons rather than planets

Kepler’s mission was supposed to be over by now, but last year NASA agreed to keep Kepler running through 2016 at a cost of about £13 million ($20 million) a year. According to Nasa scientists, there is, what’s dubbed, a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ in space where the temperature is not too hot, or too cold, for water to exist in liquid form.

Any planets found in this zone could have life on them. If Kepler is retired, Nasa scientists believe the search for other lives on planets could be severely hindered. The research team used a technique called verification by multiplicity, which relies in part on the logic of probability.

Kepler observes 150,000 stars, and has found a few thousand of those to have planet candidates. If the candidates were randomly distributed among Kepler’s stars, only a handful would have more than one planet candidate.

However, Kepler observed hundreds of stars that have multiple planet candidates.  Through a careful study of this sample, these 715 new planets were verified. ‘Four years ago, Kepler began a string of announcements of first hundreds, then thousands, of planet candidates –but they were only candidate worlds,” said Lissauer.

 The blue bars on the histogram represents all the exoplanets known, by size, before today's Kepler Planet Bonanza announcement on Feb. 26, 2014. The gold bars on the histogram represent Kepler's newly-verified planets.

The blue bars on the histogram represents all the exoplanets known, by size, before today’s Kepler Planet Bonanza announcement on Feb. 26, 2014. The gold bars on the histogram represent Kepler’s newly-verified planets.

 ‘We’ve now developed a process to verify multiple planet candidates in bulk to deliver planets wholesale, and have used it to unveil a veritable bonanza of new worlds.’ These multiple-planet systems are fertile grounds for studying individual planets and the configuration of planetary neighborhoods. This provides clues to planet formation.

Four of these new planets are less than 2.5 times the size of Earth and orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for life-giving liquid water.

One of these new habitable zone planets, called Kepler-296f, orbits a star half the size and 5 percent as bright as our sun. Kepler-296f is twice the size of Earth, but scientists do not know whether the planet is a gaseous world, with a thick hydrogen-helium envelope, or it is a water world surrounded by a deep ocean.

 
Sizes of Verified Planets found by Kepler - boosted significantly by today's announcement

Sizes of Verified Planets found by Kepler – boosted significantly by today’s announcement

‘From this study we learn planets in these multi-systems are small and their orbits are flat and circular — resembling pancakes — not your classical view of an atom,’ said Jason Rowe, research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., and co-leader of the research.

‘The more we explore the more we find familiar traces of ourselves amongst the stars that remind us of home.’ This latest discovery brings the confirmed count of planets outside our solar system to nearly 1,700.

Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets.  Discoveries include more than 3,600 planet candidates, of which 961 have been verified as bona-fide worlds.

 

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