Exoplanets

NASA Kepler Results Usher in a New Era of Astronomy

kepler planet candidatesimage credit: NASA

Scientists from around the world are gathered this week at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., for the second Kepler Science Conference, where they will discuss the latest findings resulting from the analysis of Kepler Space Telescope data. 

Included in these findings is the discovery of 833 new candidate planets, which will be announced today by the Kepler team. Ten of these candidates are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their sun's habitable zone, which is defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for liquid water. 

At this conference two years ago, the Kepler team announced its first confirmed habitable zone planet, Kepler-22b. Since then, four more habitable zone candidates have been confirmed, including two in a single system. 

New Kepler data analysis and research also show that most stars in our galaxy have at least one planet. This suggests that the majority of stars in the night sky may be home to planetary systems, perhaps some like our solar system.

"The impact of the Kepler mission results on exoplanet research and stellar astrophysics is illustrated by the attendance of nearly 400 scientists from 30 different countries at the Kepler Science Conference," said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at Ames. "We gather to celebrate and expand our collective success at the opening of a new era of astronomy."

From the first three years of Kepler data, more than 3,500 potential worlds have emerged. Since the last update in January, the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler increased by 29 percent and now totals 3,538. Analysis led by Jason Rowe, research scientist at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., determined that the largest increase of 78 percent was found in the category of Earth-sized planets, based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2012. Rowe's findings support the observed trend that smaller planets are more common.

An independent statistical analysis of nearly all four years of Kepler data suggests that one in five stars like the sun is home to a planet up to twice the size of Earth, orbiting in a temperate environment. A research team led by Erik Petigura, doctoral candidate at University of California, Berkeley, used publicly accessible data from Kepler to derive this result.

Kepler data also fueled another field of astronomy dubbed asteroseismology -- the study of the interior of stars. Scientists examine sound waves generated by the boiling motion beneath the surface of the star. They probe the interior structure of a star just as geologists use seismic waves generated by earthquakes to probe the interior structure of Earth.

"Stars are the building blocks of the galaxy, driving its evolution and providing safe harbors for planets. To study the stars, one truly explores the galaxy and our place within it," said William Chaplin, professor for astrophysics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. "Kepler has revolutionized asteroseismology by giving us observations of unprecedented quality, duration and continuity for thousands of stars. These are data we could only have dreamt of a few years ago."

Kepler's mission is to determine what percentage of stars like the sun harbor small planets the approximate size and temperature of Earth. For four years, the space telescope simultaneously and continuously monitors the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, recording a measurement every 30 minutes. More than a year of the collected data remains to be fully reviewed and analyzed.

Ames is responsible for the Kepler mission concept, ground system development, mission operations, and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development.

Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency's Science Mission Directorate. 

For more information about the second Kepler Science Conference, visit: http://nexsci.caltech.edu/conferences/KeplerII/index.shtml

For more information about the Kepler mission and to view the digital press kit, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

Research Thrust: 

Hubble Space Telescope Reveals Rogue Planetary Orbit for Fomalhaut b

Mountain View, CA -- Newly released NASA Hubble Space Telescope images of a vast debris disk encircling the nearby star Fomalhaut and a mysterious planet circling it may provide forensic evidence of a titanic planetary disruption in the system. 

Astronomers are surprised to find the debris belt is wider than previously known, spanning a section of space from 14 to nearly 20 billion miles from the star. Even more surprisingly, the latest Hubble images have allowed a team of astronomers to calculate the planet follows an unusual elliptical orbit that carries it on a potentially destructive path through the vast dust ring. 

The planet, called Fomalhaut b, swings as close to its star as 4.6 billion miles, and the outermost point of its orbit is 27 billion miles away from the star. The orbit was recalculated from the newest Hubble observation made last year. 

Paul Kalas
Paul Kalas is a research scientist at the SETI Institute

"We are shocked. This is not what we expected," said Paul Kalas of the University of California at Berkeley and the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. 

The Fomalhaut team led by Kalas considers this circumstantial evidence there may be other planet-like bodies in the system that gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b to place it in such a highly eccentric orbit. The team presented its finding Tuesday at the 221st meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Long Beach, Calif.

Among several scenarios to explain Fomalhaut b's 2,000-year-long orbit is the hypothesis that an as yet undiscovered planet gravitationally ejected Fomalhaut b from a position closer to the star, and sent it flying in an orbit that extends beyond the dust belt. 

"Hot Jupiters get tossed through scattering events, where one planet goes in and one gets thrown out," said co-investigator Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "This could be the planet that gets thrown out."

Hubble also found the dust and ice belt encircling the star Fomalhaut has an apparent gap slicing across the belt. This might have been carved by another undetected planet. Hubble's exquisite view of the dust belt shows irregularities that strongly motivate a search for other planets in the system.

If its orbit lies in the same plane with the dust belt, then Fomalhaut b will intersect the belt around 2032 on the outbound leg of its orbit. During the crossing, icy and rocky debris in the belt could crash into the planet's atmosphere and create the type of cosmic fireworks seen when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Most of the fireworks from collisions will be seen in infrared light. However, if Fomalhaut b is not co-planar with the belt, the only thing to be seen will be a gradual dimming of Fomalhaut b as it travels farther from the star.

Kalas hypothesized that Fomalhaut b's extreme orbit is a major clue in explaining why the planet is unusually bright in visible light, but very dim in infrared light. It is possible the planet's optical brightness originates from a ring or shroud of dust around the planet, which reflects starlight. The dust would be rapidly produced by satellites orbiting the planet, which would suffer extreme erosion by impacts and gravitational stirring when Fomalhaut b enters into the planetary system after a millennium of deep freeze beyond the main belt. An analogy can be found by looking at Saturn, which has a tenuous, but very large dust ring produced when meteoroids hit the outer moon Phoebe.

The team has also considered a different scenario where a hypothetical second dwarf planet suffered a catastrophic collision with Fomalhaut b. The collision scenario would explain why the star Fomalhaut has a narrow outer belt linked to an extreme planet. But in this case the belt is young, less than 10,000 years old, and it is difficult to produce energetic collisions far from the star in such young systems.

Fomalhaut is a special system because it looks like scientists may have a snapshot of what our solar system was doing 4 billion years ago. The planetary architecture is being redrawn, the comet belts are evolving, and planets may be gaining and losing their moons. Astronomers will continue monitoring Fomalhaut b for decades to come because they may have a chance to observe a planet entering an icy debris belt that is like the Kuiper Belt at the fringe of our own solar system.

For more information and for related images, please visit: 

www.nasa.gov/hubble

and 

http://hubblesite.org/news/2013/01

William Borucki Honored by National Academy of Sciences

PASADENA, Calif. - William Borucki, science principal investigator for NASA's Kepler mission at the agency's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California, is the recipient of the 2013 Henry Draper Medal awarded by the National Academy of Sciences. 

Borucki is honored for his founding concept and visionary leadership during the development of Kepler, which uses transit photometry to determine the frequency and kinds of planets around other stars. 

"This is a commendable recognition for Bill Borucki and the Kepler mission," said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It is well deserved and a tribute both to Bill's dedication and persistence and the fantastic and exciting results from Kepler." 

Kepler is the first NASA mission capable of finding Earth-size planets in or near the "habitable zone," the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist on the surface of an orbiting planet. Kepler is detecting planets and possible candidates with a wide range of sizes and orbital distances to help scientists better understand our place in the galaxy. 

"It has been a privilege to participate in the initial steps in the search for life in our galaxy. I would like to thank all who have worked with me to make this possible," said Borucki. 

Borucki earned a Master of Science degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1962 and joined Ames as a space scientist that same year. The results of Borucki's early work developing spectroscopic instrumentation to determine the plasma properties of hypervelocity shock waves were used in the design of the heat shields for NASA's Apollo mission. In June, Borucki celebrated 50 years of service at NASA. 

The Henry Draper Medal is awarded every four years for an outstanding, recently published contribution to astrophysical research and carries with it an award of $15,000. 

The award will be presented at a ceremony April 28, during the National Academy of Sciences' 150th annual meeting in Washington. 

Ames manages Kepler's ground system development, mission operations and science data analysis. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with JPL at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. 

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes the Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA's 10th Discovery Mission and is funded by NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters. 

For information about the Kepler mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler. 

Research Thrust: 

Pages


Subscribe to RSS - Exoplanets