Kepler Discovers Five Exoplanets
January 4, 2010: NASA's Kepler space telescope, designed to find Earth-size planets in the habitable zone of sun-like stars, has discovered its first five new exoplanets.
Named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b, the planets were announced Monday, Jan. 4, by the members of the Kepler science team during a news briefing at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington.
Right: An artist's concept of the Kepler space telescope on a mission to discover habitable planets outside our own Solar System. [more]
"The discoveries show that our science instrument is working well," says William Borucki of NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Borucki is the mission's science principal investigator. "Indications are that Kepler will meet all its science goals."
The five planets are quite a bit larger than Earth. Known as "hot Jupiters" because of their high masses and extreme temperatures, the new exoplanets range in size from similar to Neptune to larger than Jupiter. They have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of the planets range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it.
Below: Kepler's first five exoplanets are large and hot. As the mission proceeds and Kepler has time to gather more data, smaller and cooler planets can be found leading, perhaps, to the discovery of planets like Earth. [larger image]
"It's gratifying to see the first Kepler discoveries rolling off the
assembly line," says Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. It's only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog."
Kepler looks for the signatures of planets by measuring dips in the brightness of stars. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars as seen from Earth, they periodically block the starlight. The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period.
While many of the signatures detected so far are likely to be something other than a planet, such as small stars orbiting larger stars, ground-based observatories have confirmed the existence of the five exoplanets. The discoveries are based on approximately six weeks' worth of data collected since science operations began on May 12, 2009.
Above: The five planets were discovered when they passed in front of (or "transited") their parent stars, causing the stars' apparent brightness to dip. [larger image]
Kepler will continue science operations until at least November 2012. It will search for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet.
According to Borucki, Kepler's continuous and long-duration search should greatly improve scientists' ability to determine the distributions of planet size and orbital period in the future.
"Today's discoveries are a significant contribution to that goal," Borucki said. "The Kepler observations will tell us whether there are many stars with planets that could harbor life, or whether we might be alone in our galaxy."
For more information about the Kepler mission, visit the mission home page at http://www.nasa.gov/kepler.
Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery mission. Ames is responsible for the ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed the Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo., was responsible for developing the Kepler flight system. Ball and the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder are supporting mission operations.
Ground observations necessary to confirm the discoveries were conducted with ground-based telescopes the Keck I in Hawaii; Hobby-Ebberly and Harlan J. Smith 2.7m in Texas; Hale and Shane in California; WIYN, MMT and Tillinghast in Arizona; and Nordic Optical in the Canary Islands, Spain.