Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kepler discovers two Saturn-sized planets

NASA's Kepler telescope, launched from Cape Canaveral in March 2009 atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, has discovered two Saturn-sized planets orbiting another star, officials announced today.

The discovery is the first confirmed of another solar system with multiple planets using the methods employed by Kepler, which measures tiny changes in the brightness of stars as planets cross in front of them and the length of time between orbits, NASA said.

Dubbled Kelper 9b and 9c, the planets are the size of Saturn and orbit close around a star like our sun, more than 2,000 light years away in the constellation Lyra.

Researchers have also identified a possible third planet, not yet confirmed, believed to be the size of a super-Earth, with a radius about 1.5 times Earth's.

NASA could confirm within weeks the existance of the third planet, which would be the smallest yet observed, by radius, outside our solar system.

Kepler's mission is to search for planets similar in size to Earth that orbit in "habitable" zones where life could be possible. Discovery of Earth-like planets is expected to take another year or more, to allow for enough orbits to accurately identify them.

The observatory, now about 18 million miles from Earth in orbit around the sun, continuously monitors a patch of sky that includes more than 150,000 stars.

More than 473 planets outside our solar system, called "exoplanets," have been discovered since 1995.

Click here to read NASA's press release about Kepler's multi-planet discovery.

IMAGE: This artist’s concept illustrates the two Saturn-sized planets discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. The star system is oriented edge-on, as seen by Kepler, such that both planets cross in front, or transit, their star, named Kepler-9. This is the first star system found to have multiple transiting planets. Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech.

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