NASA's ailing Kepler Observatory has just bagged a first of its kind planet: a “Godzilla Earth” planet dubbed Kepler 10c. The new world orbits a star in the constellation Draco 560 light years away from Earth. For scientists, this is a new kind of world in that, until now, no rocky planet anywhere 17 Earth masses, as Kepler 10c is, had ever been found.
So, what of the new discovery?
First of all, Kepler 10c is about 560 light years distant from Earth and is roughly 17 Earth masses, which is also far larger than the 2-4 Earth mass “super Earths” that are becoming increasingly common. Until this discovery, scientists weren't even sure that such a large rocky planet could even exist at all. The planet orbits its parent star in about 45 days and is probably too hot to be hospitable to life as we know it.
AS an interesting footnote, the discovery was actually a cooperative find between two teams: NASA Kepler and the HARPS (High Radial Accuracy Planet Searcher) Telescope, which is operated by the European Space Agency (ESA). In short, Kepler found the planet and HARPS determined its composition.
Needless to say, this discovery is proof that Kepler is anything but dead.
Early last year, it was reported y NASA that its Kepler Observatory was facing dire technical problems as its 'reaction wheels,' which help keep the observatory properly orientated in space, were failing. Shortly after the news of Kepler's troubles leaked, another wheel broke, leading many to automatically assume that Kepler was would be reduced to glorified space junk.
Cue the K2 mission extension.
During its original mission, Kepler stared continuously at more than 150,000 stars in a small patch of sky K2 would take the instrument on a broader view, covering five to 10 times more area by studying four to six "fields" per year, observing each one for a minimum of 40 days but preferably for 70 to 80 days, according to Kepler project scientist Steve Howell at the initial proposal for K2. Ideally, Kepler would study 10,000 to 20,000 targets within each field, he added. All of these fields would be roughly in the plane of Earth's orbit because such an orientation would maximize Kepler's compromised pointing ability.
According to Howell, the K2 mission would likely turn up many small exoplanets around small stars, including some in the habitable zone. It could also spot a number of alien worlds around bright stars, which would make good targets for follow-up observation by NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, an $8.8 billion instrument due to launch in 2018.
As an afterthought, Kepler could also gather data about supernova explosions, star formation and solar-system bodies such as asteroids and comets during K2.
For the record, K2 is set to start May 30.
Still, no matter what comes of K2, Kepler's scientific legacy is a rich one as it has, literally, added thousands of worlds to the known universe.
In recent years, it is the search for rocky extrasolar planets in their parent stars' habitable zones that has been the focus for astronomers. Thanks to advances in technology, exemplified by Kepler, that allow for the measurement of stars' brightness to almost unimaginable sensitivities, this can now be done as these Earth-sized planets were simply impossible to detect with the older Doppler Shift technology that was used to find the first extrasolar planets, all of which were Jupiter-sized giants.
To date, Kepler has found over 3,600 probable planets orbiting other stars. So far, only about 20% have been confirmed to exist but mission scientists estimate that, in time, over 90% of these potential planets will be confirmed as real. The interesting trend in these findings: Earth-like planets are being found at ever-increasing frequency and that smaller (Neptune and smaller-sized) planets are more numerous than Jupiter-like worlds. While certainly not being the fingerprint of an alien civilization, Kepler's discoveries are interesting in that it is now known that very inviting, Earth-like planets, can exist throughout the reaches of space.
The best part: there may be hundreds of more planets buried in Kepler's data. The problem: there's simply too much data for scientists to comb through in any timely manner acting alone. In fact, there is such a backup of data that NASA is even posting it online so that amateurs can help professionals sift through the mountains upon mountains of data to find planets.
In the end, no matter how K2 turns out, Kepler already has a rich legacy of discovery that is sure to keep pros and amateurs busy, a scientific gift that will keep on giving for years to come.
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