Kepler Discovers a Tiny Solar System
Jan. 11, 2012: 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."
This artist's concept depicts an itsy bitsy planetary system --
so compact, in fact, that it's more like Jupiter and its moons than a
star and its planets. Astronomers using data from NASA's Kepler mission
and ground-based telescopes recently confirmed that the system, called
KOI-961, hosts the three smallest exoplanets known so far to orbit a
star other than our sun. [more]
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."
Kepler searches for planets by continuously monitoring more than
150,000 stars, looking for telltale dips in their brightness caused by
crossing, or transiting, planets. At least three transits are required
to verify a signal as a planet. Follow-up observations from ground-based
telescopes also are needed to confirm the discoveries.
The latest discovery comes from a team led by astronomers at the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. The team used data
publicly released by the Kepler mission, along with follow-up
observations from the Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, and the W.M.
Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Their measurements
dramatically revised the sizes of the planets from what originally was
The three planets are very close to their star, taking less than
two days to orbit around it. The KOI-961 star is a red dwarf with a
diameter one-sixth that of our sun, making it just 70 percent bigger
'Honey I Shrunk the Planetary System': This artist's concept
compares the KOI-961 planetary system to Jupiter and the largest four of
its many moons. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech [more]
Red dwarfs are the most common kind of star in our Milky Way
galaxy. The discovery of three rocky planets around one red dwarf
suggests that the galaxy could be teeming with similar rocky planets.
"These types of systems could be ubiquitous in the universe," said
Phil Muirhead, lead author of the new study from Caltech. "This is a
really exciting time for planet hunters."
For more information about the Kepler mission, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler
Production Editor: Dr. Tony Phillips | Credit: Science@NASA