Sunday, November 3, 2013

Earth-like Planet Discovered in a Ridiculous Orbit

 Astronomers from two continents made a startling announcement last week. They had found a world similar in size and composition to the Earth that orbited its star in only eight and a half hours.... Just think about that for a minute. Our planet takes 365 and a quarter days to complete its orbit. The innermost planet in our system, Mercury, takes 88 days to circle the Sun. The new planet, designated Kepler 78b, takes only about a third of one of our days to orbit its star. In other words, a year on Kepler 78b is only 8.5 hours long -- a two-Earth-year-old toddler on this alien world would already be 2,063 years old in local time!

The planet is a bit larger in size than our Earth, but made of dense rock like our inner planets (and not gas and liquid, like our outer planets.) Since it circles so close to its star, it must be torridly hot, so we imagine its surface is molten rock and not solid like our own crust.  Some are calling it a lava planet.

How can astronomers know so much about a distant world like Kepler 78b? As its name implies, the planet was discovered around a faint star in the constellation of Orion by the Kepler telescope in space. Kepler's camera measures the size of a planet when the planet is seen going across the face of its star and diminishing the star's light briefly. But that can only tell us how big the planet is across, and not what kind of material it's made of.

But once Kepler found the planet, astronomers in the U.S. and Europe used giant telescopes on the ground to find the tiny wiggle the pull of the planet causes in the motion of its star. This "wiggle method" tells us how much pull (gravity or mass) the planet has.

When astronomer combine the size of the planet from Kepler and the mass of the planet from the wiggle method, they can calculate the planet's "density" (mass per unit volume). In this case, all the measurements made it clear this was a dense world, made of rock, just like our Earth.

The mystery is: how did an Earth get SO outrageously close to its star. If it was falling in, what made it stop? We know it couldn't have been born so close to the star, because the star was larger when it was young, and the planet would have been inside the star, where no planet can exist. Kepler 78b is part of a group of strange planets Kepler has been discovering -- all of them too close to their stars for their own good and for our peace of mind.

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