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January 5, 2010

Kepler Finds Weird New Exoplanets

The Kepler Space Telescope is a attempt to find potentially habitable worlds around other stars. Those discoveries are still probably a little ways off, but Kepler has found its first 5 planets. These findings were anounced on Monday, and provide new mysteries for scientists to solve.

The planets Kepler found are called "hot Jupiters". This is because they are approximately the same size as Jupiter in our own solar system, but very close to their parent stars. “We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect,” said Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA. “It’s only a matter of time before more Kepler observations lead to smaller planets with longer period orbits, coming closer and closer to the discovery of the first Earth analog.” Hot is actually a bit of a understatement in this case since they are well over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, these 5 are the first to be confirmed planets out of over 100 candidates that have been found. Most of the over 400 exo-planets we have found to date are hot Jupiters, but Kepler's new planets have some unique oddities.

Saturn is the least dense body in our solar system and would float in water (assuming you can find a big enough lake). One of the new planets discovered by Kepler puts Saturn to shame, having a density close to styrofoam. This makes it the least dense planet ever found and poses the mystery of how it formed. Other objects found appear to be planet like objects, only they are hotter than the stars they are orbiting. Ground based observations are looking into these objects and I am curious what they will conclude.

Right now the Kepler planet count is at 5, but this is just the start. These results push the limits of what kinds of planets exist in the universe, and that is exciting. I think this is just a taste of what is to come.

Universe Today

Image Credit: NASA