Of all the ways planets can die--consumed by their host stars, for instance, or obliterated by a collision with another planet or asteroid--evaporation isn’t one that had crossed many astronomer’s minds. But data from the exoplanet-hunting Kepler observatory has revealed a nearby planet--just 1,500 light years from Earth--that appears to be evaporating before our very eyes. Over the next 100 million years, the planet will completely disintegrate.
Two small, scorched Earth-sized worlds orbiting a reddish sun-like star in the Cygnus constellation mark yet another milestone for the storied Kepler Space Telescope mission. They're the smallest exoplanets found to date — one of them is just 1.03 times the size of Earth, a veritable body double.
Nestled in the Goldilocks zone of a small, sun-like star is a room-temperature world a little more than twice the size of Earth. Scientists do not yet know if it is rocky or gaseous and whether it has water or clouds, but they do know that it's the right size, and in the right place, for liquid water to exist. If it does exist, it may be one of the best places to look for life outside of our solar system.
The new planet, Kepler-22, is about 600 light-years away and the smallest planet confirmed to exist smack in the middle of the habitable zone of a sun-like star. It's one of the most stunning announcements from the Kepler Space Telescope, which stares at a field of stars in the constellations Cygnus and Lyra and looks for blips in brightness to find other planets. While Kepler has (as of today) found more than 2,000 possible planets, finding an Earth-like world in a sun-like environment has proved elusive — until now.
These days, every exoplanet discovery is still rich with excitement, as astronomers scrutinize each distant world and consider its possible characteristics. But this could get tedious pretty soon, as the number of confirmed exoplanets climbs into the thousands. When that happens, astronomers and especially astrobiologists will have to start sifting planets according to their interestingness. A new paper to be published next month describes a new two-step ranking system to make this process easier. We spoke to astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch to get some details.
In the pantheon of modern astronomical explorers, the Kepler Space Telescope ranks right near the top, uncovering more than 1,200 worlds outside our solar system while staring at just a small fraction of the sky. Kepler has unveiled searingly hot, tiny terrestrial worlds, planets potentially sharing an orbit, an especially inky light-absorbing planet, and 54 planets comfortably ensconced in the Goldilocks zones of their stars. In September, Kepler astronomers announced yet another bizarre discovery: A planet orbiting around a binary star system, just like a certain dun-colored world in a certain science fiction film sextet.
But most people likely didn't know this exciting find — doubtless one of Kepler's most famous discoveries to date — was initially someone else's trash. Laurance Doyle happily sifted through it, leading to one of the biggest scientific discoveries of the year.
One of the fun things about astronomy is that we can only know so much through empirical observation, yet we can “know” so much more through enlightened, mathematical guesswork. Such is the nature of the most interesting new science paper I’ve come across on the Internet today. In it, Wesley Traub of CalTech crunches some Kepler data and makes a tantalizing mathematical prediction: one-third of sun-like stars have at least one earth-like terrestrial planet orbiting in their habitable zones.
A gigantic radio telescope in Virginia has started listening to 86 Earth-like planet candidates identified by the Kepler Space Telescope, hoping to hear signs of alien life. Astronomers aren’t even sure the stars to which they are listening actually harbor planets, let alone radio-communicating extraterrestrials, but hey, we might as well bend an ear, right?
A tiny world of molten rock, orbiting scorchingly close to its host star, is the smallest planet ever discovered outside our solar system, NASA announced today. And it's likely only the first in a parade of planet discoveries to be announced this spring by the Kepler Space Telescope team.
If it seems like a new extrasolar planet is discovered every week these days, that's because there is. In fact, the rate is actually faster than one per week – 70 have been discovered thus far this year alone, bringing the overall tally of confirmed exoplanets at 494. At that pace we very well might hit exoplanet number 500 before the end of this month.
Researchers have confirmed six new planets beyond our solar system, the prelude to an avalanche of exoplanet discoveries soon to cascade from NASA's Kepler mission.
There's more to come -- on Tuesday, NASA's Kepler space telescope team released data from 156,000 stars, including a list of more than 700 stars that likely harbor planets, meaning hundreds of new exoplanet discoveries are imminent.
Astronomers will use ground-based telescopes to do follow-up observations on those stars. The 28-member Kepler team is keeping some of the juiciest stars for itself, however -- actually common practice in space telescope circles, but a decision that has sparked some controversy.