Kepler Space Telescope Discovers Locked Planets

By  //  May 8, 2013

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Amazing New Worlds

BREVARD COUNTY • CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA – The amazing space telescope called Kepler has done it again.

An artist’s conception shows Planet Kepler-36c as it might look from the surface of neighboring Planet Kepler-36b. (Image courtesy of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/David Aguilar)

Astronomers analyzing data this week from the telescope have reported that Kepler has discovered two distinct planets revolving in a tight-locked orbit with one another, a first for NASA astronomers.

The recently discovered planets are about 1,200 light-years from earth and of different densities.

“These two worlds are having close encounters,” said Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in a press release. “We’re now combing through the Kepler data to try to locate more.”

DENSITIES

Planet Kepler-36b is 1.5 times the size of Earth and about 4.5 times heavier. Kepler-36b orbits the Star Kepler-36 about every 14 days at a distance of less than 11 million miles.

Planet Kepler-36c orbits the star at a distance of 12 million miles every 16 days and is more than 3.7 times the size of Earth.

Astronomers say the smaller planet is 30 percent iron, 15 percent water and has an atmosphere less than 1 percent atmospheric hydrogen and helium. The larger planet is warmer and more gaseous.

During their orbit the planets travel 1.2 million miles of each other. That is five times the Earth-moon distance, but actually is 20 times closer to one another than any two planets existing in our solar system.

Yet despite how close their orbits are, astronomers believe the planets will not collide because of the timing of their orbits.

The Kepler space telescope was launched by NASA in 2009 and its mission has been extended to 2016. (Image courtesy of NASA)

LAUNCHED FOR THE CAPE IN 2009

“Here we have a pair of planets in nearby orbits, but with very different densities,” said astronomer Steve Kawaler of Iowa State University in a press release. “How they both got there and survived is a mystery.”

The astronomers said they are able to determine a great deal of information about the planets because they come within 1.2 million miles of each other.

The Kepler space telescope, which was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2009, employs a photometer to examine light from distant objects and is able to  identify a planet when it crosses in front of its parent star. The transit of the planet diminishes the amount of light coming from the star momentarily.

Kepler was designed to survey the Milky Way galaxy to discover hundreds of Earth-size and smaller planets in or near the habitable zone and determine the fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy that might have such planets.

Last month, the Kepler Space Telescope began its extended mission, which will keep the spacecraft seeking alien worlds for another four years, extending its official mission.

Kepler is now embarking upon the extended mission after completing its prime 3 1/2-year mission for NASA.

The extended Kepler mission will fund its research through 2016 and possibly beyond then.


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