News Flash: Tiny Area of Milky Way Yields Six-Planet Solar System and 1200 Exo Planets (58 in Life-Zone Orbits)

Phot-22c-07-preview NASA's life-search is off to the races! NASA announced today that the Kepler space telescope's survey of one small swath of the Milky Way registered more than 1,200 exo-planet candidates, including 58 residing in life-friendly orbits around their parent stars.

Scientists have no way of knowing yet if any of the newly discovered planets are rocky-body worlds like Earth. But the census, collected by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope after just four months of work, shows that small planets like Earth are much more prevalent than Jupiter-sized worlds and that multiple-planet systems are common.

Today's new discoveries from NASA's Kepler space mission reveal a large and promising variety of planets deep in space, with some almost as small as Earth and others in the "habitable zones" of their solar systems where scientists think life could potentially exist. Of the 1,200 candidate planets now catalogued, Kepler has also identified a solar system with at least six small planets orbiting their sun – all lined up on a disc-like plane similar to our own.

The planets – called exoplanets because they are outside the Earth's solar system – are believed to be gaseous rather than rocky and so unable to support life, but the discovery of a system with so many planets and all orbiting in a manner similar to planets in our system has created great excitement.

"This is a remarkable system and a very exciting sign of what else is to come," said Jonathan Fortney, a member of the Kepler science team from the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Given the information Kepler is sending back, we're not only able to identify the planets, but we can tell a lot about how big they are, how close they are to their suns and to some extent what they're made of," he said.

The results released at a NASA press conference and the journal Nature rare a little more than a quarter of the total information collected by Kepler, launched almost two years ago. As Kepler collects information over a longer time period, more rocky, watery planets, potentially more hospitable to life
will be identified.

The six-planet solar system, called K-11, not only contains that surprisingly large clutch of planets in a relatively small area, but the planets are lined up as if on a flat disc – one that's even flatter than our own solar system. Because the observatory is looking so far into space, the K-11 solar system, some 2,000 light-years away, will never be completely understood.

"We've come to expect the unexpected," said Sara Seager, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology exoplanet specialist also on the Kepler science team. "This new system is one of the most interesting ever discovered because of what it says is possible."

The Daily Galaxy via NASA and

Image credit: Exo planet Glise 581 ESO

A CalTech analysis appears on The Kepler science mission data, collected between May 2 and September 16, 2009, will be published in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal.


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