January 5, 2010

The First Five Exoplanets for 2010 from Kepler

Amidst the bone-chilling weather, on the first Monday of 2010 the Kepler Mission Team announced 5 new exoplanet discoveries to kick-start the new year, and to coincide with the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in Washington.

The new exoplanets were named Kepler 4b, 5b, 6b, 7b and 8b. They range in size between Neptune to larger than Jupiter, and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days. Estimated temperatures of these "Hot Jupiters" range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and much too hot for life as we know it. All five of the exoplanets orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

I consider the discovery of these seething hot giants as a warm-up for Kepler (no pun intended). Planets with short periods of orbits will be announced first as they transit their star much quicker relative to the Earth's 365-day orbit. Soon, the planet-hunting telescope will discover smaller, and possibly more "earth-like" worlds as Kepler stares longer at stars with planets orbiting a bit farther away from their suns, and thus probably lie within a Habitable Zone. As Jon Morse, director of the Astrophysics Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington says, "We expected Jupiter-size planets in short orbits to be the first planets Kepler could detect. 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."

Congratulations and High fives to the Kepler Team!