NASA's Kepler spots rocky, "iron dumbbell" exoplanet

NASA Kepler space telescope finds first rocky exoplanet

nasa/artists impression
NASA today said its star-gazing satellite Kepler has identified its first rocky planet orbiting a sun similar to our own -- 560 light years from our solar system.

While not in an area of space considered habitable, the rocky planet known as Kepler-10b and is never-the-less significant because it showcases the ability of Kepler to find and track such small exoplanetary movements. 

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According to NASA Kepler has found the planet is 1.4 times bigger than Earth and orbits its sun once every 0.84 days.  It is more than 20 times closer to its star than Mercury is to our sun and likely has a surface temperature north of 2,500 degrees F, NASA stated.

"Accurate stellar properties yield accurate planet properties. In the case of Kepler-10b, the picture that emerges is of a rocky planet with a mass 4.6 times that of Earth and with an average density of 8.8 grams per cubic centimeter -- similar to that of an iron dumbbell," NASA stated.

According to NASA: Kepler's ultra-precise photometer measures the tiny decrease in a star's brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it. The size of the planet can be derived from periodic dips in brightness. The distance between the planet and the star is calculated by measuring the time between successive dips as the planet orbits the star, NASA stated.

"The Kepler team made a commitment in 2010 about finding the telltale signatures of small planets in the data, and it's beginning to pay off," said Natalie Batalha, Kepler's deputy science team lead at NASA's Ames Research Center in a statement. She is the primary author of a paper on the discovery accepted by the Astrophysical Journal.

Kepler has already made a number of key space discoveries.

In August, Kepler discovered two Saturn-sized exoplanets crossing in front of, or transiting, the same star. At the time 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.

NASA reported last January Kepler spotted five 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.

The grand prize for Kepler of course would be finding a planet similar to Earth or those that orbit stars in a warm habitable zone where liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet, according to NASA. Since transits of planets in the habitable zone of solar-like stars occur about once a year and require three transits for verification, it is expected to take at least three years to locate and verify an Earth-size planet, NASA stated.  The satellite has been peering at a patch of space, scanning over 150,000 stars since 2009.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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