NASA Kepler spacecraft spots 2 new planets crossing same star

NASA says Saturn-like planets are first star system found to have multiple transiting planets.

nasa kelper artists impression
NASA's star gazing Kepler space telescope has discovered two Saturn-sized exoplanets that are crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star.

In a teleconference today, NASA said in addition to the two confirmed giant planets, Kepler spotted what appears to be a third, much smaller transit signature in the observations of the sun-like star designated Kepler-9, which is 2,000 light years away from Earth. The planets were named Kepler-9b and 9c.

Amazing telescopes produce hot space images

The signature is consistent with the transits of a super-Earth-sized planet about 1.5 times the radius of Earth in a scorching, near-sun 1.6 day-orbit. Additional observations are required to determine whether this signal is indeed a planet or an astronomical phenomenon that mimics the appearance of a transit, NASA stated.  

The observations show Kepler-9b is the bigger of the two planets which have masses similar to but less than Saturn, NASA stated.  Kepler-9b lies closest to the star with an orbit of about 19.2 days, while Kepler-9c has an orbit of about 38 days. By observing several transits by each planet over the seven months of data, the time between successive transits could be analyzed.

The discovery comes from seven months of observations of more than 156,000 stars as part of an ongoing search for Earth-sized planets outside our solar system.

Kepler's ultra-precise camera measures tiny decreases in the stars' brightness that occur when a planet transits them. When planets cross in front of, or transit, their stars as seen from Earth, they periodically block the starlight. The size of the planet can be derived from the size of the dip. The temperature can be estimated from the characteristics of the star it orbits and the planet's orbital period. Kepler will continue operations until at least November 2012, NASA stated.

The findings will be published in Thursday's issue of the journal Science.

NASA reported earlier this year the Kepler space telescope spotted five new planets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system.  The five planets are called "hot Jupiters" because of their deep mass and extreme temperatures, NASA said. They range in size from about the same size as Neptune to larger than Jupiter and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days, NASA stated. The orbs likely have no known living organisms because NASA estimates their temperatures to range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and all five orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.  In June, mission scientists announced the mission has identified more than 700 planet candidates that it had not confirmed as planets.

NASA's announcement follows news this week that astronomers using the European Southern Observatory spotted a solar system similar to ours containing seven planets as compared to our eight. The researchers also found evidence that the distances of the planets or exoplanets from their star follow a regular pattern similar to our solar system.

The international team of astronomers made the discovery using used the HARPS spectrograph which is attached to ESO's 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla, Chile, during a six-year-long study of the Sun-like star labeled HD 10180, located 127 light-years away in the southern constellation of Hydrus.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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