Tuesday, January 5, 2010

NASA's Kepler finds its first five planets - an odd assortment


NASA's Kepler space telescope is just beginning its 3-year Mission to find Earth-like planets in habitable zones around stars. The first new planets it has found, declared Monday, include two so hot they would melt iron.

NASA's planet-hunting telescope Kepler has bagged its first quarry: five new planets Neptune's size and larger, including one with the density of Styrofoam, creating it one of the lightest planets yet found.

In addition to the new planets, Kepler results imply that the light output from two-thirds of some 43,000 sun-like stars in its field of view is virtually as stable as the sun's output.

That seemingly obscure observation implies that the majority of stars potentially are as hospitable to life as Earth's sun, assuming there was an Earth-like planet orbiting at the right distance from the star.

"If most stars are quiescent, that raises the havens for life in the universe," says astronomer Caty Pilachowski of Indiana University. The reason: Periodic strong outbursts of radiation from a star might sterilize a planet's surface, even if the planet orbited the star in the so-called habitable zone.

That zone signifies distances where any water on a planet's surface would receive just enough heat to remain liquid and stable on the planet's surface.
Quiescent stars mean "we are more likely to have habitats where life can evolve and enlarge our chances of finding that life down the road," she says.

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