Last week, we reported NASA Opportunity Robot finds an Alien Object. The Kepler space telescope provides the closest look yet at the HAT-P-7 exoplanet as it searches for Earth-like planets in other solar systems.
NASA’s orbiting Kepler space telescope has detected the atmosphere on a previously discovered exoplanet—a planet beyond Earth’s solar system that orbits its own star.The telescope collected the data from HAT-P-7, about 1,000 light years from Earth.
NASA said the find demonstrates Kepler’s ability to deliver precise information on some of the galaxy’s most distant objects. The capability could eventually help researchers discover Earth-like planets in other solar systems.
“As NASA’s first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene,” said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate’s Astrophysics Division at NASA’s Washington, D.C. headquarters, in a statement.
Kepler was launched March 6 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. It will spend the next three years hunting for Earth’s sister planets. The telescope will improve its chances by focusing on planets that are similar to Earth in size and are located at a distance from their sun that would permit the existence of water.
Kepler does not provide visual views of the planets it finds. Rather, it detects their existence by tracking dips in the brightness of stars—which occur when an orbiting planet travels across the face of its sun. HAT-P-7 orbits its star in just 2.2 days. It’s 26 times closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun.
“As NASA’s first exoplanets mission, Kepler has made a dramatic entrance on the planet-hunting scene,” said Jon Morse, director of the Science Mission Directorate’s Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Detecting this planet’s atmosphere in just the first 10 days of data is only a taste of things to come. The planet hunt is on!”
Right: An artist’s concept of an exoplanet orbiting close to its sun. Image credit: NASA
Launched March 6, 2009, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, Kepler will spend the next three-and-a-half years searching for planets as small as Earth, including those that orbit stars in a warm “Goldilocks zone” where there could be water. It will do this by looking for periodic dips in the brightness of stars, which occur when orbiting planets transit, or cross in front of, the stars.
“When the light curves from tens of thousands of stars were shown to the Kepler science team, everyone was awed; no one had ever seen such exquisitely detailed measurements of the light variations of so many different types of stars,” said William Borucki, the principal science investigator and lead author of the paper.
The observations were collected from a planet called HAT-P-7, known to transit a star located about 1,000 light years from Earth. The planet orbits the star in just 2.2 days and is 26 times closer than Earth is to the sun. Its orbit, combined with a mass somewhat larger than the planet Jupiter, classifies this planet as a “hot Jupiter.” It is so close to its star, the planet is as hot as the glowing red heating element on a kitchen stove.
HAT-P-7 was known before Kepler turned its attention to the planet. Kepler’s measurements are so precise, however, they show something new: a smooth rise and fall of the light caused by the changing phases of the planet, similar to the phases of our own Moon. Kepler could also see the planet’s light vanish completely when it passed behind its parent star. This vanishing act is called an “occultation.”
The planet’s size and high temperature have led astronomers to label it “hot Jupiter.” Its surface is said to be as hot as the heating element on a stove.
“The new Kepler data can be used to study this hot Jupiter in unprecedented detail,” said NASA.