NASA finds 10 new Earth-size planets : Current Affairs

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The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has revealed that it has found 10 new near-Earth size planets, which are in their star’s habitable zone.

What is meant by habitable zone?

  • It is the range of distance from a star where liquid water could pool on the surface of a rocky planet.

Recently a news conference was held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, where it was revealed that the astronomers used the Kepler space telescope to find 219 new planets.

According to NASA it is the most comprehensive and detailed catalog of candidate exoplanets from Kepler’s first four years of data.

It’s also the final catalog from the spacecraft’s view of the patch of sky in the Cygnus constellation.

This data will enable scientists to determine what planetary populations — from rocky bodies the size of Earth, to gas giants the size of Jupiter — make up the galaxy’s planetary demographics.

What are exoplanets?

  • They are the planets which are outside our solar system.

With the release of this catalog there are now 4,034 planet candidates identified by Kepler. Of which, 2,335 have been verified as exoplanets. Of roughly 50 near-Earth size habitable zone candidates detected by Kepler, more than 30 have been verified.

Additionally, results using Kepler data suggest two distinct size groupings of small planets.

Significance of the result:

  • Both results have significant implications for the search for life
  • The final Kepler catalog will serve as the foundation for more study to determine the prevalence and demographics of planets in the galaxy, while the discovery of the two distinct planetary populations shows that about half the planets we know of in the galaxy either have no surface, or lie beneath a deep, crushing atmosphere – an environment unlikely to host life

“The Kepler data set is unique, as it is the only one containing a population of these near Earth-analogs – planets with roughly the same size and orbit as Earth,” said Mario Perez, Kepler program scientist in the Astrophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

“Understanding their frequency in the galaxy will help inform the design of future NASA missions to directly image another Earth,” Perez said.

How does Kepler space telescope find new planets?

The Kepler space telescope looks for planets by detecting the minuscule drop in a star’s brightness that occurs when a planet crosses in front of it, which is called a transit.This is the eighth release of the Kepler candidate catalog.

“This carefully-measured catalog is the foundation for directly answering one of astronomy’s most compelling questions – how many planets like our Earth are in the galaxy?” said Susan Thompson, Kepler research scientist for the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and lead author of the catalog study.

How did the researchers go about the study?

  • One research group took advantage of the Kepler data to make precise measurements of thousands of planets, revealing two distinct groups of small planets
  • The team found a clean division in the sizes of rocky, Earth-size planets and gaseous planets smaller than Neptune. Few planets were found between those groupings
  • Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, the group measured the sizes of 1,300 stars in the Kepler field of view to determine the radii of 2,000 Kepler planets with exquisite precision
  • “We like to think of this study as classifying planets in the same way that biologists identify new species of animals,” said Benjamin Fulton, doctoral candidate at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, and lead author of the second study
  • “Finding two distinct groups of exoplanets is like discovering mammals and lizards make up distinct branches of a family tree,” Fulton added.

(With inputs from NASA)

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