NASA’s Kepler discovers habitable planet

NASA’s Kepler discovers habitable planet

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Update: In another step toward finding Earth-like planets that may hold life, NASA said Monday the Kepler space telescope has confirmed its first-ever planet in a habitable zone outside our solar system. French astronomers earlier this year confirmed the first exoplanet to meet key requirements for sustaining life, but Kepler 22b, initially glimpsed in 2009, is the first the US space agency has been able to confirm.

NASA will reportedly announce the discovery of a number of newly discovered planets on Monday, the latest batch of mysterious worlds to be added to the space agency’s growing list of celestial bodies.

NASA will reveal the latest batch of discoveries made by its planet-hunting Kepler space telescope on Monday, according to a statement released by the space agency. NASA says it will hold a press conference at its Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The press conference is the first of the inaugural Kepler Science Conference, which will focus on findings made by the Kepler telescope. The conference will run from December 5 to December 9 and will feature more than 110 scientific presentations, officials said.

“The briefing will provide an update on the statistical findings since Kepler’s Feb. 1, 2011, science data release and introduce a new confirmed planetary discovery,” NASA officials said in a statement released Friday.

The space agency says the this year’s annual announcement will continue a long tradition that it anticipated to accelerate in the coming years as the Kepler Telescope continues to search for earth-like planets. NASA officials say they expect a number of significant discoveries by Kepler this year.

“Sooner or later, Kepler will find a lukewarm planet with a size making it probably Earthlike,” said Geoffrey Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re no more than a year away” from such a discovery, he said.

The announcement comes as NASA announced Friday the discovery of an earth-sized planet that is reportedly hot enough to melt iron.

The exoplanet, which is known as Kepler-21b, is just 1.6 times bigger than earth, making it a so-called “super Earth.” However, the planet orbits so close to its parent star that astronomers say its surface temperature to be about 2,960 degrees Fahrenheit.

The planet reportedly orbits at a distance of six million km – nearly ten times closer than Mercury orbits the sun. The parent star, HD 179070, a little hotter and brighter than the sun, is 352 light years away. Somewhat similar to the sun, the parent star is 2.84 billion years- younger than the sun’s 4.6 billion years. Although Kepler-21b is pretty small and very far away, unable to be seen with the naked eye, the parent star can easily be seen with binoculars or a small telescope.

While the planet is considered super-Earth, NASA scientists emphasize that a super-Earth does not mean it is Earth-like. They say the newly-found super-Earth is heavy and dense, with a mass no more than 10 times that of the Earth. Space agency officials say the task took 65 scientists 15 months and that the multiple precision measurements and other readings taken by Kepler and the Kitt Peak telescopes made such a sensitive planet detection possible.

The NASA Kepler Mission is designed to survey a portion of our region of the Milky Way Galaxy to discover Earth-size planets in or near the “habitable zone,” the region in a planetary system where liquid water can exist, and determine how many of the billions of stars in our galaxy have such planets. Part of the difficulty in detecting planets is the realization, from the Kepler mission, that many stars show short period brightness oscillations.

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