Kepler Just Made One Of Its Most Important Planet Discoveries Yet

Artist's impression of a super-Earth. NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech

Jonathan O`Callaghan 07 Sep 2017, 19:52

In the hunt for life beyond the Solar System, several things are key. First, we need to find worlds that are similar in size to our own. Second, they need to be close enough for us to study. And third, they need to pass in front of their star relative to us, so we can study their atmospheres.

With that being the case, the star GJ 9827 just might be one of Kepler’s most important discoveries yet. Scientists have found three super-Earths transiting the star, just 98 light-years away. This makes them prime targets for atmospheric study.

“Our preliminary analysis shows the GJ 9827 planets are excellent candidates for atmospheric observations,” the team, led by Prajwal Niraula from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, writes in their paper. It has been submitted to the American Astronomical Society for publication.

GJ 9827 is roughly 70 percent the size and mass of our Sun. The planets (b, c, and d) were found to orbit the star in 1.2, 3.6, and 6.2 days respectively (a perfect ratio of 1:3:5). The innermost planet, b, has a radius of 1.75 times that of Earth. The middle, c, is 1.36, and the outer planet is 2.1.

It’s thought that 1.5 times the radius of Earth might be the threshold at which planets become gaseous. Thus, not only do these planets transit their star, they might allow us to glimpse how planets evolve – all in one system.

They are the closest planets found by NASA's Kepler mission. While other planets have been found by other telescopes that are closer, mostly by noticing the wobble in the star from the gravity of the planets, these are the closest found to be transiting their star.

“This is one of the best targets for atmospheric characterization, because it's relatively bright,” Niraula told IFLScience. “It's in the top five candidates, according to our calculations.” 

Kepler has found thousands of planets since it launched in 2009. NASA/JPL-Caltech
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