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Scientists discover the mother of all super Earths 560 light years away

Kepler space telescope
Kepler space telescopeNASA (public domain)

Kepler 10c, an exoplanet that was announced to have been discovered in May, 2011 as a result of observations by the Kepler Space Telescope, is the mother of all super Earths, according to a Monday announcement by NASA. It weighs 17 times more than Earth. This is something that was thought to be impossible according the science.

Kepler 10c orbits a sun-like star 560 light-years away near the Cygnus and Lyra constellations every 45 days and is therefore thought to be too hot for life. It was measured at being 2.2 times the size of Earth, therefore classifying it as a “super Earth.” A second planet, called Kepler 10b, also a super Earth, also orbits the same star. Now, thanks to follow up observations by the HARPS-North instrument on the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo in the Canary Islands which measured that planets mass, scientists have something of mystery on their hands.

The problem is that a planet the mass of Kepler 10c ought to be a gas giant. This is because a planet this massive should accrete a gas envelope during its formation, ballooning the planet to a gas giant the size of Neptune or even Jupiter. Instead the planet is a rocky world, pretty much like Earth, only larger, much heavier and, thanks to its proximity to its star, likely devoid of water. Thus experts in planet formation are scrambling to figure out how such a world is possible.

Natalie Batalha, Kepler mission scientist at NASA's Ames Research Center, is quoted as suggesting that finds like this are what make science marvelous. Scientists can establish theories about how phenomenon like planet formation works. However occasionally something like Kepler 10c is discovered that throws those theories into disarray and send scientists back to their computer models. Thus observation causes theories to change, when science is conducted in the way it is generally understood.