Thursday, January 12, 2012

Kepler Discovers a Tiny Solar System

Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission have discovered the three smallest planets yet detected orbiting a star beyond our sun. The planets orbit a single star, called KOI-961, and are 0.78, 0.73 and 0.57 times the radius of Earth. The smallest is about the size of Mars.

"This is the tiniest solar system found so far," said John Johnson, the principal investigator of the research from NASA's Exoplanet Science Institute at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "It's actually more similar to Jupiter and its moons in scale than any other planetary system. The discovery is further proof of the diversity of planetary systems in our galaxy."

All three planets are thought to be rocky like Earth, but orbit close to their star. That makes them too hot to be in the habitable zone, which is the region where liquid water could exist. Of the more than 700 planets confirmed to orbit other stars -- called exoplanets -- only a handful are known to be rocky.

"Astronomers are just beginning to confirm thousands of planet candidates uncovered by Kepler so far," said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington." Finding one as small as Mars is amazing, and hints that there may be a bounty of rocky planets all around us."

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