Friday, April 8, 2011

Planet hunters find treasure trove and Thronateeska astronomer believes planet could be in crucial "life zone," 08.27.10

Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory have made one of the most exciting discoveries of the decade this week. In the constellation Hydrus, 127 light years away, five planets have been discovered orbiting the star HD 10180, with a possibility of two more planets. Jim Friese, staff astronomer at Thronateeska Heritage Center, believes one of the planets could be in the “life zone,” the area of space that is just the right distance from its sun for life to be sustained on the planet.

The star is very similar to our own, and the planets orbiting around it are thought to be much like Neptune. The sixth planet (when confirmed) is thought to be similar to Saturn. This solar system is unique because the planets all have circular orbits and are much closer to their sun than the planets in our solar system are to our star. The system also contains one of the smallest exoplanets ever discovered, one that is only 1.4 times the mass of our own earth. This discovery could greatly increase astronomers’ knowledge of how planets affect their stars and vice versa.

NASA also made an announcement this week that its own planet-hunting efforts have resulted in its Kepler Mission discovering two planets transiting, or crossing in front of, the same star, Kepler-9. The planets have been named Kepler-9b and Kepler-9c. Both planets have masses similar to the planet Saturn. An announcement was also made yesterday that there may be a third planet orbiting Kepler-9. It is only 1.5 times earth’s mass and is very close to the star, possibly making a complete orbit of its sun every 1.6 days.

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