Kepler telescope discovers five new planets, all bigger than Earth

By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In their search for a planet that looks like Earth -- comfortably bathed in sunshine in a pleasant solar system where life would be easy come easy go -- astronomers keep turning up the strangest things.

They've found a planet with the density of Styrofoam.

They've found two planets with surfaces hotter than molten lava.

They've found two inexplicable planet-sized objects that for some reason are hotter than the stars they orbit. Scientists have never seen anything like this before.

"Does anyone know what they are?" asked Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer David Latham, standing onstage in a ballroom of astronomers Monday at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park.

About 3,300 astronomers and students are in Washington for the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where sessions range from why stars explode to how astronomers can find a job. The gathering's first day was dominated by news from Kepler, a new space telescope NASA launched in March on a mission to find Earth-like planets.

The very early results are tantalizing. Astronomers said they found five new planets, all much bigger than Earth. An additional 100 or so signals are being analyzed that might indicate planets. The new telescope has also revealed that the sun is not anomalously calm by galactic standards, which boosts the odds that other solar systems would be habitable.

William J. Borucki, Kepler's lead scientist, spent decades lobbying NASA to fund the mission. For much of Monday, he played his cards close to the vest, revealing only the five planets that popped up in the first six weeks of observations. Eight more months of data are still being analyzed, with the candidate planets being scrutinized by ground-based telescopes.

"There's a lot of real interesting stuff. That's all we can say now," said Simon "Pete" Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center. If an Earth-like planet were found, he noted, the president and Congress would be brought into the loop prior to a public announcement.

Latham, part of the Kepler team, teased, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

A race is going on between American and European scientists to find the first "Earth" -- a planet that is about its size and simultaneously in the "habitable zone" of a star. In the habitable zone, a planet would be in the Goldilocks position, neither too hot nor too cold, and just right for water to be liquid at the surface.

Many scientists interested in the idea of extraterrestrial life have been excited by the discovery of hundreds of "exoplanets" beyond Earth's solar system. There is also evidence that complex molecules of the type necessary for life are abundant in the universe. But what's also clear is that the universe has a lot of ways to construct solar systems. When it comes to planets, eccentricity may be the norm.

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