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This week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) spacecraft, Kepler, detected eleven planetary systems, which, overall, contain 26 new exoplanets (short for extrasolar planets, which exist beyond out solar system). Located in the Lyra and Cygnus constellations, each system contains two to five planets. The systems have been dubbed Kepler-23, Kepler-24, Kepler-25, Kepler-26, Kepler-27, Kepler-28, Kepler-29, Kepler-30, Kepler-31, Kepler-32, and Kepler-33.
The sizes of the exoplanets range from 1.5 to 5 times the size of Earth to larger than Jupiter. All of them orbit their parent stars closely; none of them lie in the habitable zone, an area in which a planet is not too close or too far away from a star so that it can sustain water and life. Each of their orbits is closer than that of Venus. The farthest exoplanet has years that last fewer than 200 days and the surface temperature of hundreds of degrees.
Kepler primarily detects planets through a process known as transiting, in which it measures a star’s periodic change in brightness generated by a planet crossing its parent star, causing the star’s light to drop a bit in brightness.
The NASA spacecraft was able to find these newer exoplanets by means of measuring Transit Timing Variations (TTVs). With this method, Kepler calculates changes in the acceleration of planets due to the gravitational pull on one another from being so close together. TTVs help Kepler find the more distant – hence fainter – star systems.
“Prior to the Kepler mission, we knew of perhaps 500 exoplanets across the whole sky,” said Doug Hudgins, Kepler program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in the press release on NASA’s Kepler website.
“Now,” Hudgins continues, “in just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets and more than 2,300 planet candidates. This tells us that our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits.”
Kepler has been in space for nearly three years. Its mission is to search for Earth-like exoplanets that orbit stars in the habitable zone. Ever since its launch in March 2009, Kepler has made numerous momentous findings, especially in the last couple of months.
On December 5, the spacecraft detected Kepler-22b, the first planet to be found in a habitable zone, and on December 20, it discovered the first two Earth-sized exoplanets, Kepler-20e and Kepler-20f. Kepler’s most recent significant detection occurred earlier this month: exoplanets KOI-961.01, KOI-961.02, and KOI-961.03, the tiniest exoplanets thus far.
Based on the diversity of the types of exoplanets, astronomers believe they will attain a better understanding of how planets form.