Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kepler Mission Finds a Weird and Wonderful New Planetary System

Last week, work with the Kepler mission (an instrument in space designed to find planets around other stars by watching them eclipse their stars) led to a major new announcement. Astronomers reported a five-planet star system, being called Kepler 20, about 1000 light years away, which appears to contain TWO planets that are among the smallest we have ever found. One is the size of Earth and one is the size of Venus.
Artist's concept of the two small planets
compared to Earth and Venus
(no one knows what the Kepler planets really look like)

Most of the news reports have focused on these two planets in the system and their small size. And certainly, the discovery of Earth-sized planets is an important one. (The two worlds take about 6 and 20 days to go around their star, so they are both so hot your little brother would get broiled pretty quickly on their surface.)

To me, however, something else stood out in the reports from the discovery team. The five planets in the system are arranged in a surprising way. Besides the two small worlds, there are three larger planets in the same system, presumably made of gas and liquid, like the larger planets in our own solar system. But instead of being organized the way we are, with the smaller worlds closer to the star and the larger ones further out, Kepler 20 has its large and small planets ALTERNATING! We get a large, then a small, then a large, then a small, then a large planet.

That, folks, as they say, "ain't natural!" We can think of no way that such an alternating system could have had that pattern originally -- which means the planets must have rearranged themselves somehow, after the system formed.  That will be an interesting challenge for astronomers who work on the theory of how planetary systems form and settle down.

For more on this weird and wonderful system, see: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2011/20dec_earthsized/

The Kepler team has over 2000 candidate planets that they are examining to confirm that they are real planets and not something else in the complex data.  In the next few years, we expect to find many new planetary systems and, if nature is kind, others will also be a challenge to our ingenuity.  This is science at its best, discoveries that force us to re-examine long-hold ideas about how nature works and what kinds of combinations she has up her sleeve.

2 comments:

  1. Besides of astrology, there would be hardly any section in the religious studies that receives lot of dissatisfaction. Is it not related to anything actually instead of misunderstood facts- natural sciences especially astronomy. This question may arise when we discuss astronomy.

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